Monday, February 19, 2018

Ahoy! The American Victory Ship in Tampa

February 19, 2018—Even today’s school children know (I hope!) that the United States was on the “winning” side of World War II. (Sadly, war actually has no winners, just those who have not lost as much as the other side.) Some of the unsung heroes of that war, as well as all other modern wars, are the Merchant Marines, the civilian corps that carry fuels and cargo to the fighting forces overseas.

Tampa has a permanent floating museum—the American Victory Ship and Museum—located at the piers where boarding of the cruise ships takes place. The Victory Ship was built in 1945 (making it my age); it is one of four fully operational WWII ships in the United States. Surprisingly, it was built in only 55 days; there was a rush to get cargo and transport ships built fast to supply U.S. troops sent to the Pacific front. This particular ship saw service through WWII, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War.

The ship was brought to Tampa in 1999 and lovingly restored by volunteers, who still keep her maintained as a fully operational vessel.

Jim, an old tar, longs for the sea. To satisfy his sea-dog yearnings, we try to tour ships wherever we find them, so yesterday, after a wonderful brunch at the Salvador Dali Museum with my Peru Group 65 friends, we headed to the ship to take a self-guided tour.

I don’t think you can appreciate how big a 455'x109' cargo vessel until you start tramping all over it. This is not a luxury ship; there are no elevators. (I’m glad it was 80 degrees, but without any humidity.) We saw bunks, bedrooms, johns, and showers. We walked through the small galley that would have fed the entire crew. We climbed up beyond the quarterdeck to the gunnery areas and up to the flying bridge. Virtually all areas of the ship are open to tourists.

I could never have been a sailor, for a lot of reasons. Jim, though, reminisces of his sailoring days, back in the mid-1950s, whenever he gets around a ship.

I’m glad he had the opportunity to tour the boat. I’m just glad it was moored. I suspect I might get seasick if it were out on the ocean.

Until the next ship…I mean, until next time.

Your Reluctant RoVer,


Forever friends and family

February 19, 2018, Tampa—People who take the time and incur the cost to travel long distances are either friends or family. In the case of our Peru Group 1965, we are both—not by blood, of course, but by a bond that we created as we learned, endured, and enjoyed an academic year in a foreign country so long ago.

It was in March 1965 that we first met—17 girls, three boys, a young program director and his wife and their (then) two children, a toddler and a babe in arms. And now, 53 years later, we have met again. We mourned the loss of Jane, our program director George’s wife, who passed away 16 years ago and the one group member who had died in a tragic plane crash many years ago. We reflected on the absence of the five who could not make it to this reunion in Tampa, because of health or other pressing issues, and we wondered (as we always do) on the one member who cannot be found and the one who chooses not to be found.

Interestingly, I believe that we are better friends today than we were in 1965. George and Jane did a remarkable job of creating a family-like atmosphere in which we could feel safe and in which we could relieve some of our homesickness. Classes at the Universidad de San Marcos were erratic; the culture was a shock; the food was different from what our Hoosier palates were accustomed to; and communication to family back home was (at least in my case) relegated to weekly letters. 
(International phone calls were too expensive for my family to afford.)

To compensate for anticipated and unexpected hardships of living and studying abroad, George and Jane opened their home to us and created events, from birthday parties to a Thanksgiving dinner, to keep us busy and to nudge us into making friendships.

Friendships, I believe, were largely developed because of proximity. For example, Nancy, Trina, Mary (Coche) and I lived within blocks of one another, and we became pals. Although we knew each other, back then we did not “know” each other.

Now, it is different. Our reunions “officially” started in 1990, 25 years after our year abroad. At these weekend gatherings, I think each of us has been able to get to know each other in a more profound way.

This weekend’s reunion was, to me, especially gratifying. Because of staggered arrival times, I was able to meet and mingle easily and at length with different people on Friday night. Jim and I brunched with a small group and ate Sunday night dinner with another small group. And because George opened his home as a central meeting place on Saturday and Sunday, we continued our many conversations for hours. It was just like a family reunion, which is appropriate, I think, because over the years, we have become more like family than like friends and classmates.

Our conversations are propelled more by caring than by curiosity: We really care about how the hurricanes impacted Irene and her family, who live in Puerto Rico; our hearts mourn for the loss of Izora’s husband of more than 50 years; and we genuinely care about the health of those present and absent.

I still feel especially close to my small clique that formed 53 years ago, but I also feel that I could become true “let’s go out and do things”  with virtually everyone in the group, if we lived in the same vicinity.

These reunions create an emotional high that leaves me charged for days. Our age is catching up to us, however. We are all in at least our mid-70s. Who knows how many will be here in another two years for our 55th anniversary?

In the meantime, I am going to savor every minute of this past weekend.

Until later,

Your Reluctant RoVer,


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Forgotten Coast

November 29, 2017—Blue skies, a sugary white seashore, soft waves breaking on the beach, temperature in the mid-70’s, and glorious sunsets—if paradise has a definition this is it.

Marketers divide Florida’s coastline into a number of different segments: The First Coast (where Jacksonville is). A bit farther south is the Treasure Coast (where many ships, including pirate ships, have sunk in angry seas). Then there is the Space Coast (Kennedy Space Center), and the Gold Coast (wealthy Palm Beach, Miami and Dade counties). You get the idea.

 My favorite is the Forgotten Coast, along the gulf shores from Florida’s “arm pit” westward. It is called the Forgotten Coast for two reasons: Few tourists deliberately travel to this area. And, the population of its “big” cities remains fairly small: Pensacola (on the far western edge of the panhandle) only has 57,000 people. Panama City) boasts a population of around 38,000.

We are staying at T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph State Park outside of Port St. Joseph on the Forgotten Coast.  Our campsite is only yards from the park’s 9.5 miles of white, sandy beaches, where we have been fishing (without much luck, alas). On the backside of our campsite, separated by a marsh, is St. Joseph Bay, a shallow body of water which also purports to have an abundance of living seafood.  (We have yet to fish there.)

Fishing has not been great (so far, I have caught our only fish, a smallish whiting),  but relaxing has been wonderful.  And nothing can beat that.

Until next time,

Your Reluctant RoVer,


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Attitude of gratitude

November 25, 2017—An attitude of gratitude. That’s what we had (and continue to have) for the Thanksgiving holiday. We give thanks for...

Cell-phone GPS. It was a long drive down to Fort Lauderdale from Jacksonville on Tuesday, but the reward for the drive was a four-day visit with my sister Judy, her husband Paul, my niece Pam, and her husband Woody, at Pam’s house. We would driveway camp at the house, use the shower, and sleep in our own bed.

I’ll admit our trip down to Fort Lauderdale started with a bit of frustration. Jim updated our Garmin GPS maps a few days ago. As we were preparing to leave Tuesday morning, he plugged the device in and tried to enter our destination, an error message appeared: “No maps available.”  We went back into the house, fired up Jim’s computer, and tried downloading the maps again. No luck. Apparently the hard drive in the device had corrupted.

We did some quick shopping. Best Buy had the GPS device we wanted, on sale for $89.99. However, the local store wasn’t open yet and we were ready to leave. We decided to stop in Daytona and purchase it there.

When we arrived in Daytona, we found the Garmin in the store—priced at $149.99! An online search at the store came up with the same price. What the…??? No one in the store could explain the price discrepancy. We decided to use our phone GPS to find Pam’s house and buy a GPS later.
On Wednesday, Jim and I went in search of a Best Buy to purchase another GPS. We settled on a TomTom, but returned it later. TomTom is no substitute for “Garmina,” the name we affectionately gave our Garmin GPS.

On Black Friday we solved the riddle of Best Buy’s short-lived sale price on the Garmin we wanted to buy. Apparently someone had posted the sale price prematurely on Tuesday, and took it down as soon as the error was discovered. On Friday we bought the device online and it will be delivered to our house by this weekend. In the meantime, we will rely on our cell phones for directions.

Non-traditional Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is usually celebrated with turkey and all the fixings. Ours was a nontraditional dinner, with Judy preparing beef and vegetable skewers and three different types of fish. I was able to contribute cole slaw, chaya greens and beans, and sweet potato pie (made from our home-grown sweet potatoes).

The best part of dinner, of course, was family. So good to be with family during this holiday, a rare treat for Jim and me.

Woody, Paul, Jim

Pam, Judy, Linda

Feeding the fish. Pam’s house is only one block from the ocean, so Jim and I tried our luck at surf fishing. The fish teased us and we went home with an empty fish bucket, but that did not dampen our enjoyment. Rather, it heightened it: The next day we treated ourselves to a half-day of fishing on a head boat.

The head-boat crew supplies everything—rods, bait, licenses (if needed) and even fish cleaning. 
Waiting to go on the fishing boat

Jim caught four fish, with only one keeper, a grunt. The hogfish he snagged was a beauty, but we were told it was out of season in these waters, so after a photo, it went back into the ocean. The grouper he caught was also a beauty, but unfortunately, two inches too short.  It was tossed back to grow up a bit more.
Jim and his hogfish. 

Jim, on my left, caught fish. The lady on my right caught fish. Me? Nada. Am I a jinx or have I not yet mastered fishing skills? I hope it is the latter.

The little grunt fish that was a keeper offered only a couple bites when filleted; however, we were able to take home the fillets of several other fish, from people who did not want to keep them. (Most tourists don’t have the ability to cook their catch or to freeze it and take it back up north, but we do.)

Watching floating cities. Pam’s house is not only near the ocean, it is also in a neighborhood abuts Port Everglades, where the ships dock. We saw several cargo and oiler ships make port. Most fascinating, however, were the cruise ships. These floating cities seemed to be in Pam’s backyard. As the ships go out of port, their temporary residents stand on deck and wave to all ship watchers. Quite exciting! Cruising does not appeal to me, but I admit the ships are extraordinary to see. (I still think they look like they are top-heavy and will turn over in a gust of wind.)

As seen from Pam's house
Continuing our vacation. Before accepting Pam’s invitation to spend Thanksgiving in Fort Lauderdale, we had already made reservations to camp at T.H. Stone Memorial State Park in Port St. Joe, up in the panhandle of Florida. No matter which way you travel, it is a two-day trip from Lauderdale, almost as far away as you can go and still be in Florida, so we decided to head home and sleep in the comfort of our brick-and-mortar home and drive to the park on Sunday to continue our vacation.

Until later,

Your Reluctant RoVer,A

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What we did on our monthly vacation

November 16, 2017--Some people claim that when you are retired, you no longer take vacations; you travel. Not so for Jim and me. We are so busy at home, with various projects (fun and not-so-fun) that we take vacations to get away from it all, just like we did when we were working. (Actually, I never had the opportunity to take real vacations when I was a single parent, so our retirement vacations are infinitely better!)

A few months ago when we bought our RUV (recreational utility vehicle) "Thor," one of the caveats we made was to travel at least once a month. These short breaks from routine would be taken mostly in Florida, and the most economical way for seniors to camp in Florida is to make use of our state's superior state park system. (Senior residents get to camp at half price, which is usually about $12 a night. Can't beat that rate.)

This week we camped for four nights at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 22,000 natural wilderness. Entering the preserve is like going back in time, to old Florida, with its rich biodiversity of both flora and fauna, including huge live oaks decorated with Spanish moss, long-leaf pine trees, golden flowers, alligators, all sorts of birds, deer, bison, wild horses...and of course the prairie.

The prairie seems endless. It is rich in its biodiversity. We did not see its wild horses, alligators, or bison, but the prairie is home to all of those animals, and many more.

When we first saw the prairie, I could have sworn we were back in Illinois. It is so unFlorida-like!

The state park is located about 10 miles outside of Gainesville, in Micanopy, a quaint small town that has survived and thrived as an antiques center. Because the shops don't open until 11 a.m. and the local museum doesn't open until 1 p.m., we meandered around the town. Many of the houses were large, old structures, nicely restored and maintained.

The Huffington Post claims that Micanopy is one of the 12 "cutest towns" in the United States. 

Our wanderings on the outskirts of the town led us to a park dedicated to the area's Native Americans. One section of the park was fenced in to protect burial mounds. We were lured to a building marked "museum" but were disappointed to find that it was locked up and apparently no longer used. In fact, the entire park seemed to be rather neglected. One interesting thing we found, however, was a large bat house on its premises. It wasn't as large as the bat houses in an RV park in the Suwannee River area, but it could host a lot of bats.

A large bat house in the Native American park in Micanopy.
I had never been to Gainesville, the home of the University of Florida, so we drove into the city. UF is about the size of Indiana University. It would appear that the town grew around the university, which is very spread out. As we drove through the campus on city streets, a large banner announced a 100-year celebration of the Florida State Museum of Natural History, which is manned by UF personnel and located on campus. What a treat! No entry fees, and several of the exhibit areas abutted  the laboratories of "real" paleontologists, who gladly allowed visitors to interrupt their meticulous fossil-cleaning to answer questions.

Today we drove out to the Dudley Farm Historic State Park, a working farm, whose website description says it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is "an authentic working farm" that shows the evolution of Florida farming from the 1850's to the mid-1940-s "through three generations of the Dudley family." The farm has 18 buildings, including the family farmhouse with its original furnishings. It even has a functional cane syrup complex. Today, the workers were making cane syrup, just as it had been made 150 years ago.

One of the farm's mules

The homestead at Dudley Farm

One reason we chose Payne Prairie State Park was because of its lake and the possibility of fishing for bass, bream, and other species. The park recently completed a very nice fishing pier. Since we are not yet able to haul our kayaks on our new car (we need roof racks), we were glad to have the pier available.

We fished and fed the little critters a great buffet each evening, but the only thing we caught was fun.

Until next time (which will be soon),

Your Reluctant RoVer,


Monday, November 13, 2017

A Roguish tow

November 13, 2017--Some RVers never tow a car. I guess they either do without a vehicle or they rent/lease a car when they get to their destination. Jim and I have left our car at home only one time, a few months after we started RVing. We had gone to a Good Sam Rally, where we learned two things:

  • We are not rally people. 
  • We never wanted to be without our car again. Being confined to a campground can be, well, confining.
There are two ways to tow an auto: flat-towing (all four wheels on the ground) or dolly-towing (two--or less often, four-wheels off the ground). Each type of towing has its advantages; each has its disadvantages. 

The primary advantage of flat-towing is that hooking and unhooking the car are quick and easy procedures. The biggest disadvantage is that if you trade cars, you need to invest in a new base plate for the new vehicle. (The base plate is attached to the frame of the car and is the "thing" to which the hitch attaches.)

The primary advantage of dolly-towing is that you invest in the dolly one time and can tow virtually any front-wheel-drive car on it. The main disadvantage is that you have to stow the dolly when you are in the RV park and/or storage area. 

When we bought our first RV, we had a car that was not towable. Instead of buying a dolly then, we traded our car for one that could be towed. Jim installed the base plate on the HHR we purchased, and when we decided we wanted a larger car, he did the same for the Ford Edge. 
Towing a car on a dolly requires attaching straps and chains to the undercarriage. 

The Rogue is almost ready. 

We recently decided we wanted to get a new car with all of the latest safety features, and we also decided that we would buy a dolly so that we could make our car-buying decision from a full range of cars that met our criteria instead of only those that could be towed. We opted to buy a 2017 Nissan Rogue. 

We purchased an excellent pre-owned dolly for a good price in anticipation of our new-car purchase. After watching the videos demonstrating how to use the dolly several times the last couple of days, this morning Jim set up the dolly; I inched the car up the ramps; and he strapped the wheels down. The procedure admittedly took longer than hitching our old car to the RV, but it was not bad. I am sure it will get easier each time we take a trip.

When we got to the state park where we are camping, we were able to unhitch in an overflow parking area, where we left the dolly (locked, and chained to a tree). We could have stowed it in our camping spot, but this was easier. As for stowing it when we have the RV in storage...not a problem. Jim just backs the RV over the tongue of the dolly. No one can steal it and it takes up no additional room.

Hindsight is always 100%. If we were buying our first RV today, we would buy a dolly, no question about it. 

Until later,

Your Reluctant RoVer,


Saturday, November 11, 2017

How many cars can you buy in one week?

Most people—if they wanted to buy a car—would buy one. Not us. We bought three. That’s right. Three. Here is how it happened.

Almost five years ago, we purchased our 2011 Ford Edge as a certified pre-owned vehicle with about 25,000 miles on it. In its day, the Edge was an almost top-of-the-line car, with leather interior, power seats, MyFordSync navigation and radio system, and lots of other options. We chose the Edge because it could be equipped to be towed flat on the ground behind our RV.

The Edge had 78,000 miles on it, but was fully functional and highly dependable. However, Jim and I are getting older, and we decided we wanted to buy a new(er) SUV that would come equipped with all the latest safety equipment, including adaptive cruise control, which allows you to follow the car ahead at a safe distance and even stops automatically to avoid a rear-end collision. We also decided that instead of buying a car that could be flat-towed, we would buy a vehicle that could be towed with its front wheels on a trailer dolly. The other requirement we had: The car we had to be capable of towing our small bass boat.

After carefully researching SUVs, I narrowed our choices to a half-dozen cars, all 2017 models. At the top of the list were the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CRV-EX, both of which came with the desired safety equipment as standard. We leaned toward the RAV4, because they also came with luggage rails, whereas we would have to pay extra for the rails on the CRV.

On October 30, we spent about six hours in a local Toyota dealership, initially looking at and driving various models of the RAV4, which comes in 11 different trim packages with progressively more expensive price tags. We found the model we wanted, but could not come to terms with the dealer. We were ready to walk, when the sales manager offered a certified pre-owned 2017 with low mileage and all the safety features and options we wanted, at a price we could agree on. We bought it and said we would pick it up at 2 p.m. October 31.

I don’t know what is wrong with that dealership. The first day (trying to get our business), they fawned over us and even bought us lunch. The day we arrived to finish the paperwork, they did not even offer us a bottle of water. And they did not have the paperwork ready. It took four hours to finish signing the paperwork.

The next day, November 1, Jim and I started to learn how to use each of the car’s many features, by applying what we were reading in the owner’s manual hands-on to the car. When we got to the section on how to tow a trailer, we read an astonishing sentence: The RAV4 SE that we bought was incapable of towing! Every other RAV4 model could tow, but not the one we bought. (The disqualification had something to do with the SE’s suspension system.)
The next day we headed back to the dealership.

In Florida, there is no cooling-off period for car buyers. Technically, Toyota did not have to give us back our Edge. But, we believed that to provide a positive customer experience, the dealer would accommodate us. After all, we had told everyone we were working with that we needed to be able to tow our small bass boat and they assured us we could. We were misled, although I do not think it was deliberate on their part. I believe it was sheer ignorance because Toyota hides that information quite well.

To our astonishment, the dealer said it could not give us back our car! They had no other car that met our budget and needs, so after several hours of haggling, I said, “Just sell our car back to us, work the numbers, and make us whole!” A person, who we assumed was the general manager (he was not) finally said he would that. However, when (after another hour), a sales manager presented the paperwork, it was going to cost us $5,000 to get our old car back! You don’t have to be very imaginative to know how we reacted to that! Disgusted, we told them we would rather spend $5,000 on an attorney. We left.

We drove home in our unwanted 2017 RAV4. The next morning I wrote letters to two top Toyota executives. I also found the general manager’s e-mail address on the dealership’s team page and e-mailed him a copy of the complaint letter, which pointed fingers at Toyota for inadequate consumer information and the dealership for a terrible customer experience. I asked to be made whole.
Thirty minutes after I e-mailed the GM, we got a phone call from the sales manager, asking us to return so that we could get all of our money and our old car back. We gave them adequate time to prepare all the paperwork, but would you believe that we were still made to wait about four hours to complete the transaction? In the end, we “bought” our second card in four days, the second car being our old one, the Ford Edge.

We were still determined to buy another, safer, car, and decided to test drive some other models. One of those was the Nissan Rogue SL. We found a helpful sales agent, who told us that in the middle of the 2017 model year, the Rogue SL with the platinum trim package (much nicer than the RAV4’s), offered all of the safety features we wanted, plus options we desired. A test drive, some civilized negotiating, and another test drive convinced us that the Rogue was the car we wanted to buy. It was car No. 3.

Three cars in less than one week. I really don't recommend doing this, especially the way we got it done. But if you are in the market for a new car, you might learn something from our car-buying experience:
  • Research. That we did, very thoroughly. We were as well prepared as we could be when we started to test drive vehicles.
  • Walk out. We visited a number of dealerships. The Toyota dealer did not give us good vibes when we entered. Too many sales people ready to pounce. Too much activity. Too much chaos. And the sales staff kept trying to interest us in more experience models instead of listening to our wants and needs. We should have walked out, as we had at other dealerships.
  • Persist. Escalate a problem to the highest level, if necessary. And if you feel mistreated, put your concerns in writing to specific executives at the corporate level, with a copy to the general manager. Doing this has rarely failed to get me results. This time was no exception.

We are pleased with our purchase, and are looking forward to towing our new car on its dolly behind our little RV “Thor”. In fact, we are going to do that next week.

Until next time,

Your Reluctant RoVer,