8: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: The Shenandoah

As we climbed slowly up into the chilling clouds along Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, the balmy climes of San Diego became a distant memory.

It was cold, drizzly, and colourful.

Perfect timing, as the leaves were turning at the onset of Fall.

Far, very far, from the madding crowd.

We overnighted in a cottage that was over 100 years old. Cosy, and wonderful to go to sleep hearing rain pattering down on wooden shingles.

The colours were gorgeous.

This came at the right time for the kiddies, who needed to slow down a gear or two.

It was time to have picnics, play, and run, and throw leaves in the air….

This was the first leg, though.

Next stop, Nashville.

Oh yeah!



7: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: Washington DC – 2 days

After the familiar hurly burly of New York, 2 days in Washington DC was always going to be too short, so we hit the ground running on the first evening with a night time tour of the notable monuments.

It was impressive.

Heading to the Thomas Jefferson memorial first, our guide explained that Jefferson’s statue was aligned to look back to Capitol Hill. The idea was that, as a ‘founding father’ of American independence and political system, his unwavering gaze on The Hill would keep future encumbents ‘honest’. On hearing this, there were a few muffled snorts of derision from fellow passengers on the tour bus.

Be that as it may, the figure of Jefferson was imposing up close.

Not a perfect man by any means, a slaveowner who occasionally fought for the freedom of slaves who were seeking emancipation, as one of the principal authors of the Deceleration, he is still a magnificent figure in American history.

And it brought a lump to my throat to read on the wall over his left shoulder, the famous opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: ‘These truths we hold to be self-evident….’

Next was Roosevelt’s memorial.

One of many sentiments in Roosevelt’s memorial, which carries a poignant irony in these recent times. Fair to say that as we’ve travelled around, ‘providing enough’ for the disadvantaged is failing the test of progress.

And then we came to Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial. In the subdued light, milling around with family and the predominantly African-American crowd, I quietly cried. Max consoled me, and was sombre in turn, himself. He pretty much understood why, as we’d talked about civil rights recently in the trip.

And yet, the celebratory reverence with which the gathering African-American people showed to the figure, had every sign of saying – ‘he is our Man, he fought for us, he even died for us’. An African-American boy at the foot of King’s statue expressed it so well. Pointing up, with two hand raised, it was symbolic in an instant.

‘He is the man!’.

On out last day in DC, by Gracie’s request, we took off for the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

‘One small step’….and so on.

Oh my goodness! Oh lordy, lordy!

Walk, in, and what’s the first thing you see?

An Apollo Lunar Module of course!

Or how about the original Wright Flyer?

We spent nearly a whole day there, to the point where Gracie was so exhausted- but wanted to keep going – we hired a complimentary wheelchair to push her around in.

After the Smithsonian was done and dusted, and we staggered out into the sun, the dissonant tinkle of a soft serve ice-cream van was the only way to celebrate the experience.

Oblivious to the symbol of power on the hill behind, the only thing that mattered was a chocolate and peanut encrusted vanilla ice-cream.

Next stop….

Well, actually, this is where the journey really begins.

A 9 day road trip from Washington DC, via Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale and Natchez, to New Orleans.

Let’s do this!

6.2: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: icons of New York

Here are some images I took on our New York (Noo Yark) sojourn that I feel iconically symbolise our favourite city.

Destination of relentless waves of immigrants from the late 1880s to the peak post-World War II years, the first sight of Lady Liberty, framed by the lower Manhattan skyline, lifted tired and desperate souls.

Now, in these straightened times of foreign policy, the iconic light of Liberty needs to shine even more.

It was the immigrants to the New World, rising above the crashing times of the Great Depression that built the Empire State Building. It is iconic to this day, symbolic of what the ordinary man is capable of, with courage and determination. It may have been financed by the rich, but it was the common man who built it, and that fact is still celebrated to this day.

It’s shadow and presence can be experienced throughout modern 21st century Manhattan, rarely obscured from view.

It was also immigrants from the Old World that brought food to New York. Even now, there is nothing more evident of this than the street food carts that sprinkle the city, from monied 5th Avenue, to Central Park, to Downtown.

New Yorkers make the most use of their built environment – putting aside Central Park, a place designed for the ordinary person.

Walking the dog…

And now more than ever, getting around by bike.

My favourite icon of New York?

The fire escapes of brownstone tenements. Used by countless generations of families to cool off in a summer heat wave, to get in touch with a neighbour across an alleyway, and to replace the balcony of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story.

Next stop, Washington DC.


6.1 Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: return to New York

Ahh, New York.

If you’ve ever been there once, and return some time later, New York city wraps you up and carries you with familiarity, and a little adventure as well.

Last visit, we were domiciled in Times Square. A good idea at the time, but never again.

This time, it was uptown, West 116th Street, kissing the edge of Harlem, up the road from Columbus Circle, off the top left edge of Central Park.

New York city, for its Leviathan status, is easy to to get around; uptown? downtown? midtown? and so on.


We were uptown this time.

And it felt good to be hanging out with the real deal. Police surveillance happening from parked cars outside our address, the episodic wail of emergency services, and life ticking along in the midst of it all; kids going to and from school, the homeless guy perpetually asleep on a stool outside the entrance to the subway, a Starbucks paper cup in his hand, that never dropped to the ground.

Peace and tranquility in Central Park, as it  was originally meant to be, a sanctuary from the working man’s grind, still now a haven from the wail and noise of midtown Manhattan.

If you really want the hurly burly, go downtown a half dozen stops, via the hub of Columbus Circle, to Times Square, and get a dose of neon and noise.

Take a hike down to The Battery, and go quietly to the 911 Memorial. Reflect on loss, and the capacity within tragedy for the ordinary person to feel connected by random acts of fear.

Tuck in your elbows, and walk the Brooklyn Bridge, now a tourist mecca, but still a commuting thoroughfare, iconic in its lace-like marvel of engineering.

Take a deep breath, and be welcomed at Tiffany’s. Buy a little something, and be looked after by a gracious member of the sales team, curious and excited for our travel itinerary, who, when finding out she was serving visitors from Australia, quietly whispered her discontent with the commercial neighbour next door: ‘You know, the police are there all the time, and he’s visited only a few times since the election.’

Food? Go where the people go, whether it’s Katz’s Deli (been operating since the 1880s)….

Pastrami on rye, and tuna sandwich – of course!
Potato omelette for the little lady?
Or Casa Nonna, in the entertainment district, just a block or two across from Broadway, after you’ve had the most wonderful night out, singing along to Donna Murphy doing Hullo Dolly.

And of course, you might climb Lady Liberty, coming out in the region of her pineal gland, reflecting on the purpose and symbolism of such an icon.

It was freedom and liberty that defined New York city at the start of the century. It’s timely to reflect on such principles, especially now.


5: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: Chicago! Chicago! It’s a wonderful town!

Time for a makeover…

After 2 days and nights on the train from LA to Chicago, a girl needs to freshen up, and have her hair done.

‘Macy’, Grace’s American Girl doll was duly booked in, her attentive mother by her side.

Meanwhile, outside, in the windiest of windy cities….

Hang on! in the windy city!

On our first day, Chicago really lived up to it’s reputation as The Windy City.

After the balmy climes of the west coast, we were hoping the breezy arrival was just a freshen up; the equivalent of a quick ice bath after the temperate and sticky west.

So it was off to The Field Museum to check out Egyptian embalming….

Where does this bit go then, Boris..?

And to get up close with ‘Sue’, the dinosaur (she really is affectionately known by that moniker)….

Stop Press! ‘Boy wearing 3 day old socks scares carnivorous dinosaur’
Working through the specimens at The Field Museum, circa late 1930s

The old boy of the bunch (that’s RM) had his birthday in Chicago, and it couldn’t have been celebrated any other way except at a thumping, R&B rolling blues club, Blue Chicago, featuring that night, Shirley Johnson in full force, in the company of his lifelong companion DG. Much Irish whiskey was consumed, the singer autographed one of her CDs for the man of the moment, and our table neighbours for the night – two young gentlemen about town, who’d flown in from The Big Apple to spectate early that evening at an ice hockey joust – who, when discovering  the ultimate goal of our family peregrinations, namely a road trip down south from DC to New Orleans, offered a quick elocution lesson on the proper pronunciation of said city; something like ‘Gnarlins’.

A quiet moment between sets….

In the end, our 5 days in Chicago was wonderful. At first it felt eerily similar to Melbourne.

There was stunning architecture…

A cosmopolitan life by the river…

And the amazing Museum of Science and Industry, that used Lego to explain the fundamentals of architectural engineering.

All in all, we found Chicago to be quite stunning….

But the next leg in our journey was New York, and we knew that was going to be like meeting up with a boisterous and energetic cousin, who we hadn’t seen for a number of years……


4: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: LA to Chicago by Amtrak, 2 days, 2 nights

Around about the time my chronological age went from single to double digits, I received in my Christmas stocking a double LP album of Glenn Miller’s greatest hits.

My guess, looking back, is that it was a fulfilled request that may have been an attempt at filling in the dots of ‘what did you do in the war, Daddy?’, as Daddy didn’t talk much about the life-changing period of service he experienced as a 9th Division artillery officer in North Africa. If I didn’t know the details, I could romanticise what I thought Daddy’s experience might have been.
The music of Glenn Miller’s orchestra was instantly captivating.
And in the strange way that Miller’s somewhat twee and hokey tune ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ told the story of travelling a train to the expectation of a story fulfilled, by the time my musical tastes had progressed in my teenage years, via Queen, and post-puberty, Led Zeppelin, to my 20-somethings, I discovered big band jazz, in particular, Duke Ellington.
While I sit writing this, in a walk up brownstone in West Harlem, Ellington’s ‘Take the A train’ (to Harlem) is ringing very true.

A week and a half ago, on the other side of the Great Divide, our young family, in the first quarter of a 7 week odyssey in the States, gathered our luggage together to take the Southwest Chief Amtrak from Los Angeles to Chicago, in a 2 day, 2 night journey; and the train-themed music of childhood and early adulthood was playing in my head.

There was an expectation of rocking and rolling our way, via a family sleeper, a dining, and observation car, to the big smoke of Chicago. After the lowlights of Las Vegas, we hoped for and expected at least some somnolent and languid relief.

Union Station, located on the edge of Chinatown in LA, is a beautiful example of Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style.



After a quick chat with the gracious African-American gentleman in the Information Booth…

we were off to check in our non-required luggage, and thence to Platform 11….

All abooooarrdd!!

to meet Cynthia, our soon to be ever-smiling carriage attendant.

For the duration of our journey, Cynthia occasionally regaled us, via a softly spoken microphone PA, with historical, geographical, and occasionally architectural anecdotes of the scenes that unfolded outside our family sleeper cabin windows.


The food in the dining car was surprisingly beyond our expectations, but what was most satisfying was meeting ordinary American folk, who quietly, and with curiosity about us, were more than happy to chat the small talk, occasionally and quite spontaneously going down the conversational siding of current American politics, then, after a brief period of restrained silence, steering the conversation to topics more comfortable.

Train travel, on a sleeper if you can afford it, is a wonderfully satisfying way to clickety clack, rock and roll, and occasionally to catch you out, pitch and yaw your way, in familiar company, from A to B.

Next (post)stop, Chicago.

3: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: Las Vegas: 4 days

OK, this will be brief, and not for the kiddies.

2 days before we arrived in Vegas, the worst gun massacre in recent history in the USA occurred.

This is in the state of Nevada, where it’s legal to own a machine gun for personal use. Get your head around that.

So, we were staying at The Luxor (which stank of stale cigarette smoke), and it was right next door to The Mandalay Bay, where the dude had blown out a window with one of his many handguns to spray one of his many machine guns over a crowd of innocent people, who couldn’t get away.

I could go on. Except to say, that of the random people we’ve chatted to since arriving in the States, from the barber who cut my hair in San Diego, to the rental car manager in Anaheim, and the elderly couple waiting at a bus stop in Chicago, they were angry about the inertia around gun control. Especially when we said on 1 occasion we experienced a gun massacre, and our then conservative government organised a gun buy back and amnesty. Really angry and bewildered that it was possible, and it could happen.

Alternatively, a highlight for the kids was seeing a dude abseil past our 17th floor window, giving them a wash.


Yes, that’s a ‘castle’ in the background.

I was ready to take a few piccies as we wandered down The Boulevard, but it seemed nothing had changed after the massacre. Dudes were still on the hustle, and showgirls were hustling for photos with tourists, for a price.

We found a place for lunch, which seemed like haven from the tawdriness of what was happening on the sidewalk outside.


So, it was time to move on from Vegas: next stop, an Amtrak from LA to Chicago – the Southwest Chief. 2 days and 2 nights of rocking and rolling bliss.

2. Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: Disneyland – 4 days


Have you ever watched a Disney movie? As a child, or recently as an adult?

A Pixar movie?


If you’ve ever experienced Disney or Pixar storytelling, and been entertained by the experience, the most cynical person will enjoy Disneyland.

It’s like coming home. Because the storytelling works. It is magical.

If you wish upon a star…

With an open heart and open mind it is an amazing experience. It’s playful and fun.

Hell, you can even have a hen’s night at Disneyland.

It’s what American people do well. In this sort of place, the people who work there – all workers are described as ‘cast’, and they have their own ‘cast’ buses that transport them to and from home – want to please you. Want you to have a good experience, and a good time. They want to look after you.

So that riding on a 100 year old carousel is fun…

And a little girl can feel special, taking a ride on a flying elephant…

A boy can find a childhood favourite (and she did say: ‘have a jolly holiday’, when the boy told her where he was from…)

It’s always a jolly holiday with Mary


Mother and son can relive the mayhem of a favourite Pixar movie….



But the best of course, is the daily Disney Parade…


Next leg of the USA Odyssey, Las Vegas….

1: Max and Grace’s excellent USA adventure: San Diego – 4 days

Leaving Melbourne in fervent expectation…

After 15 hours heading east over the Pacific, via Auckland, we landed in LA, picked up a hire car, and drove down to San Diego.

Nothing like driving on the wrong side of the road while jet-lagged!

We stayed in the ‘Old Town’ area of San Diego, at a lovely hotel, hacienda style.

Best Western Hacienda, Old Town, San Diego

The Mexican food in the main drag was great, and the atmosphere was really in full swing for Halloween.

It was lovely to cool off in the pool. It was about 30C after all!

First off, we took a drive to The Coronado, made somewhat famous as a location for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. And it was. She was. Anyway…

Spin class on the beach anyone?

Then it was off to LegoLand California…


Then a return trip on another day for LegoLand Water Park.

San Diego SeaWorld was sort of interesting, when you consider what captured animals can be compelled to do…

The pod performs
An Orca drenches a girl, just to show it can

And Gracie got up close with a tiger at the San Diego Zoo.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright!

Next stop DisneyWorld!!

I’m off to see The Wizard: but why will I be sad?

September 2011 Dad passed away at the age of 94. A ‘good innings’, and a pretty full life.

He’d done his bit in WW2, serving in the 2/7th Field Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery, in North Africa and Borneo.

For many reasons, Dad didn’t volunteer a lot of information about his experiences of that time, but when he did, it was remembering the good stuff, the times when they had a laugh, not the times when fear and the chance of annihilation were present.

One story he did occasionally recount was, in the end, apocryphal of that time time abroad, when neither he, nor his mates could be certain about what was around the corner. And this story I’m recounting is in the context of an episode of remembering by my 5 year old son Max of ‘Nonno’, and what Anzac Day means now for Max. For a number of recent years we’d made the trip back to Adelaide to help Dad out on Anzac Day; either I, or my nephew Jonathan pushing Dad in a wheelchair at the head of what was left of his regiment in the Anzac Day march. The other night, at home with Max, at evening story-time, I reminded Max that we wouldn’t be going to Adelaide for Anzac Day this year, as there was really no need, now Nonno had passed away. Without a blink, Max suggested we go anyway, and push an empty wheelchair in the march, to remember Nonno: then he buried his face in his pillow and sobbed.

Anzac Day this year is in 5 day’s time. So I’m in a bit of reminiscent mood.

So to The Wizard of Oz.

Dad told the story occasionally to us of his special connection with The Wizard of Oz. Released for the first time in 1939, the story began with a night at the movies for his regiment in Perth late November 1940, just before embarkation to the Middle East. The Wizard of Oz was the main feature. The regiment arrived in Palestine mid-December 1940. Dad told the story: as they were marching in to barracks, someone started to whistle (against regulations? who knows?), We’re Off To See The Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz – then the whole, or most, of the regiment joined in. It seems ironic now, and probably was at the time, that they were marching along to war, to a future none of them could predict with certainty, to such a light-hearted and optimistic tune.


We're off to see The Wizard


In October 1942, the 2/7th played a vital role in the Battle of El Alamein.


Artillery in action: Battle of Alamein


How many of those young men who had joined in the jaunt of whistling a happy tune didn’t return home to Australia, and family, and loved ones?

Dad wouldn’t dwell on the losses he experienced during his time in North Africa. I don’t mind that his stories of overseas service were only about the funny, the light-hearted, and the adventurous times. (The best story was when he was on duty as Officer-in-Charge, when a regimental contingent had a ‘night out’ at the local brothel…)


And so tonight, there’s a screening of The Wizard of Oz at son Max’s school. Max loves The Wizard of Oz, as he does many other musicals of the 1940s and 50s. We’re going as family. Any just maybe I might feel a bit sad; but then again, the movie is about hope, and optimism, and cccccourage.