Category Archives: Texas

Ice

They said that the snow and ice that impacted Texas in the winter of 2021 was caused by a rare polar vortex. It was bad and unprecedented in that it affected certain parts of the state not used to weather extremes. This may be true but in some ways it was normal for Texas. Some of the worst winter weather we have ever experienced was in Texas.

Three storms were especially exceptional. Ruth & I planned to visit Palo Duro Canyon. The day before we were due there, we were in Canyon, Texas. The ice storm there was so bad that we stayed in our motel room all day. It was a Sunday. Our only outing that entire day was a brief trip to Amarillo in the morning. We barely made it back to Canyon. Luckily the restaurant next to our motel was able to open so we had food. Otherwise we stayed in our room and watched ice accumulate outside our window. The next day was better, but it snowed in the morning. We finally made it to Palo Duro Canyon about 11 am. The weather improved all day and that’s the thing about Texas winters. It can be awful but then turn beautiful.

Another time we barely made it to Fort Worth during a historic ice storm that saw a huge increase in auto accidents. Everything in Fort Worth but Starbucks was closed. We didn’t linger in either Starbucks or the city, but the weather never improved.

Another time we traveled across central Texas north of Austin and the temperature never rose above 32 degrees all day. We were the only vehicle on the road. I stopped and took several pictures like the one below of the ice covered landscape.

Another time we were in Fredericksburg west of Austin when a snowstorm struck on a Saturday night. We had had very bad weather all day. I took the photo of the fountain below on that day.

Texas is a land of extremes. It had an unprecedented tornado in Waco that did a lot of damage to the city. They still talk about the hurricane that almost destroyed the city of Galveston in 1900. More than 6,000 people died. It was the subject of Erik Larson’s book that became a successful movie. Called Isaac’s Storm, the book was a bestseller. The Washington Post called it “the Jaws of hurricane yarns.” In 2010 a series of thunderstorms struck the Texas plains on the 4th of July. The city of Lubbock was affected. Texans experienced roadway closures, and more than 100 vehicles were damaged. It’s estimated that the negative economic impact of these storms amounted to 16.5 million dollars.

Texas has had unusual and violent weather. The historic winter storm of 2021 that led to unprecedented power outages and chaos was certainly one of them, but Ruth and I were not terribly surprised by it.

Hank


BEP in Fort Worth

 

There’s a big attraction in Fort Worth, TX that receives little publicity, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  It’s north of the city on Blue Mound not too far from the I-820 ring road.  When it opened rather anonymously 29 years ago, many locals thought this money factory was a prison. This Bureau of Engraving and Printing is one of only 2 federal facilities making paper currency.  Actually, it’s not paper since linen and cotton are used to make it.  One often asked question about the bills made is how long each lasts.  A one dollar bill has a 5.8 years life span and can be bent back and forth about 4,000 times before it will tear.  I did not test this.

This Fort Worth money-making facility opens at 9 am most days for self-guided tours.  I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t take photos on this tour.  I was not allowed to take out and use my cell phone either.   Mostly men were below making bricks of currency in an 8 step process.  Bills are scrupulously checked for imperfections and 97% are OK.  4,000,000,000 $1 notes are made in an average year.  Some of the money-makers looked up and waved, so I actually went back to the main desk to ask why I was being allowed to see the currency making process.  I was told that the man who donated the land for this facility insisted that ordinary citizens have the right to watch their money being made before it’s completely dried and sent to the Federal Reserve for distribution.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) near Fort Worth is already bigger than the only other one in Washington, DC.  Because the building that is popular with tourists in Washington, DC can’t be enlarged, a new BEP is being built in Beltsville, MD.  It will not offer tours and be much smaller than the Fort Worth facility.  The one in current use in Washington, DC will become a museum when its bill making function ceases about 3 years from now.  There are four mints making coins in San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, and West Point, NY.  This will not change.

To stay ahead of counterfeiters, changes are made to each type of foldable currency every 5 years.  The $100 bill has been the largest denomination printed since 1969 and is due for a facelift.  I asked which foreign countries cause our Government the most headaches by counterfeiting and was told that North Korea and Afghanistan lead the list.  Ruth & I were very interested in this negative aspect of money making and paid close attention to the ways in which counterfeiters are thwarted.   Changes are often made to the security thread, color-shifting ink in many hues is introduced, and the watermark can be altered.  Ruth has often demonstrated what she learned about foiling counterfeiters since this free tour of the Fort Worth Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  For example, yesterday she showed the 2nd and barely visible image of Andrew Jackson on a $20 bill in the lower right hand corner to 2 visitors.

The Bureau of Engraving & Printing didn’t exist until Abraham Lincoln needed a national currency to pay for the Civil War.  Before 1861 paper money was made by private companies, and about one-third of the bills in circulation were bogus.  The Secret Service was created by Lincoln to go after counterfeiters, and his last act as President was to sign the bill creating it.

After taking this self-guided tour Ruth headed for the gift shop while I browsed some relevant displays near the entry where I learned the name of the most notorious counterfeiter of American currency, William Brockway.

Hank


A Surgeon Gets a Hand

 

The Adrian E. Flatt, M. D. collection is about one man’s obsession.  His medical specialty was hand surgery, so Dr. Flatt collected hands.  In the last century he must have prevailed on famous people to cast their hands in bronze.  It’s a bit creepy to see, which is probably the reason why I learned about it on Atlas Obscura.  It’s also free and fairly fascinating in a bizarre way.  Prepare to see, for example, some hand abnormalities.  It’s one of those places that you don’t expect to like but it casts a spell.  It’s just inside the door of a Baylor University Medical Center at 3500 Gaston Street in Dallas, TX.  For now there is plenty of parking meter parking up and down Gaston close to this center.

Dr. Flatt began his obsessive bronze hand collection by casting patients’ hands before surgery, which led to requests to sculpt the hands of other surgeons.  He also began collecting objects related to human hands, like an unusual British 5-hand toast rack and several Brazilian good luck charms shaped into hands.  The hands below were painter Andrew Wyeth’s.  Dr Flatt apparently contacted and befriended athletes, cartoonists, anyone who made a living using their hands.   His collection grew to over 100 pairs of famous-at-the-time hands.  It’s too bad that this collection stopped growing when Flatt either died or stopped collecting.  Human hands are rather intriguing and have been the subject of many artistic efforts.  It is said that the human hand is hard for artists to reproduce.

I can see the time coming when the professionals at this Baylor medical center conclude that their facility needs more room to treat virus sufferers and they decide to put this collection in storage.  If you’re in Dallas before that happens, go and see this unique and very personal collection.

Hank


Another Visit to NMFH

It’s a bit hard to take a museum seriously when its new exhibit is called  “the History of Cremation”.  It’s a bit weird to be a big fan of a museum called the National Museum of Funeral History.  However, the fact is that I am.  NMFH is a bit hidden among the many attractions in the Houston, TX area but exists in a rather residential area north of the city at 415 Barren Springs Drive.  On our 2nd visit to an attraction that doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Ruth & I spent much of our time trying to interest a curator in exhibiting the re-created hearse used in the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s burial in Springfield, Il a few years ago.  It would be very appropriate in a museum that advertises itself as “the place to visit when you are dying to do something different”.

This time our tour of the National Museum of Funeral History began with Presidential burials.  There was a lot of information and artifacts about the funerals of famous Presidents like Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt but also coverage of the final ceremonies for some not-so-famous Presidents like William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson. This area was quite well done but a real time killer.  While we browsed it, Ruth and I began talking about our involvement in the remaking of the Lincoln hearse that we have not seen for a few years.  Ruth went to get a curator while I revisited this museum’s patented Money Casket and read about the Marsellus casket factory in Syracuse, NY that closed in 2003.  I vividly remembered seeing the former but not the latter during our first visit.  Both were quite interesting.  There were several Marsellus’ caskets to study for those who are curious about this seldom-thought-about-business until something like a coronavirus scare hits.  Ruth returned with a woman from the office who showed us a small model of Lincoln’s hearse that was already on display.  We had not discovered it, and I was amazed at how accurate it was.  This employee seemed interested in possibly displaying the huge re-created Lincoln hearse and promised to look into it.

 

I headed into a display of many recent celebrity funerals like Valerie Harper’s and was soon playing a game that challenged me to choose the actual words on Mel Blanc’s tombstone.  I got it right that the voice of Bugs Bunny has “That’s All Folks” as his epitaph.  I enjoyed re-seeing the classic cars used as hearses in the past and the displays of funerals from ancient Egyptian to the present.   I was studying a Japanese funeral carriage and being reminded of my favorite exhibit from the past visit when I had learned that this Asian culture holds the most elaborate and expensive funerals in the world.  Ruth came by to see if I had found the  papal funerals that had not been there the first time we visited.  She led me to them, and this exhibit was pretty fascinating.

I later met a man in another tourist spot whose wife had been to the National Museum of Funeral History a couple of times without him.  He said he was tempted to go but had not.  I assured him that it was worthwhile, and he seemed ready to try it.  I hope he did.  I’m really glad that I went back to see this unusual museum sponsored by the funeral services industry and dedicated to enlightening us about humanity’s oldest cultural rituals.  It’s a soberly run enterprise with lots of new and evolving displays like the one that just opened about George H. W. Bush, who lived in Houston.    I can see why this offbeat museum receives awards.

Hank

 

 


Killeen’s Fort Hood

Once a farming community, Killeen, Texas, has grown to 145,000 people mainly because it’s home to Fort Hood.   It has become a service community that lacks charm but has every chain store imaginable.  Fort Hood is mainly a training facility with its own population of about 40,000 that includes army personnel in training and the people training them.  They need off base stores for fun and entertainment.  There are lots of fast food options on base.  The main reason for visiting Killeen, for now, is to go on this base to visit 2 so-so regimental museums.  It’s a rather arduous process to gain entry to them for travelers just passing through.  This will hopefully change in about 2 years.

Fort Hood wasn’t built until 1942 when World War II was happening and a post for testing tank destroyers was needed.  Sixteen years later its most famous trainee, Elvis Presley, arrived for about half a year.  I was also told that Joe Lewis trained here, but I didn’t have the foresight to ask it this was the prizefighter or the kickboxer.  The director of the Fort Hood Museums, Steven Draper, gave Ruth & me time and toleration while telling us about the museums future plans and providing us with information about Fort Hood that was helpful.   Fort Hood has grown to be the largest active-duty US military base in the world and the largest employer in Texas.  Its stated job is to maintain a constant state of readiness for combat missions.

The larger of the 2 museums tells the story of the 1st Cavalry Division in considerable detail.  By 1942 troopers on horseback were becoming obsolete.  The 1st Cavalry Division dated from 1921 and operated out of Fort Bliss with headquarters in El Paso as the 1st’s mounted force patrolled the Texas-Mexico border.  The Pacific Theater of World War II required a different type of training, and their mission changed to jungle and amphibious survival.  It did not see combat until 1944 when its beach-storming actions resulted in 7,000 Japanese casualties.  The 1st’s inductees were soon fighting in the Philippines and receiving Medals of Honor.  After the war, the 1st spent 5 years in Japan on occupation duty.  This was followed by action in Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  There is information about all of these with a special focus on Viet Nam.  Outside there are many decommissioned vehicles and planes. I asked Draper which one I should focus on and he told me that the Huey helicopters were the most popular because older visitors remember them from news reports out of Viet Nam.  I was more impressed by the insect-like Skycrane.

The other and smaller museum is about the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.  It has artifacts beginning with the regiment’s founding in 1846 with action in the Mexican War up to the present’s war on terror.  There are displays about Indian Wars, The Spanish American War, and more.  There are some beautiful regimental standards like the ones above and below along with lots of weapons and uniforms.

To get into Fort Hood for now is difficult.  Ruth & I had to acquire visitor cards that are good for a year by providing our driver’s licenses, our rental car papers, insurance info, and a social security number.  Within 2 years, if current plans are realized, there will be an off-base museum that replaces the 2 current museums.  Called the National Mounted Warrior Museum, it will be located outside this base’s security perimeter near the current Marvin Leith Visitors Center.

Hank