Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part three.

From the little brick reststop, we rode along toward Bedford, Virginia. They put a movie in about the town that described the why of what we would be seeing when we got there. About half of the flat screens worked. A few of the others flickered and struggled, but couldn’t keep a picture. One screen had been peeled off the plaque like an old bandage to reveal a shiny, plastic scar.

It was a moderately moving documentary about the D-Day invasion and the terrible losses of Bedford, Virginia, a town that had lost more men per capita to the invasion than any other town in America.

They lost 19 just on that day.

Bedford had a local reserve unit stationed in town. A lot of the farm boys, all poor as church mice, had enlisted in the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor to make a few extra bucks one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. When the war came, they were called up. When the allies invaded Normandy, they were part of it and many of them were killed.

Only a scant handful made it back after the war and not all of them saw the loss of their brothers and school friends as a noble sacrifice. One of them very pointedly said they’d died in vain.

Among the children of the Greatest Generation sitting on that bus, people gasped and complained that the makers of the documentary shouldn’t have let that guy speak, that he wasn’t patriotic.

Jan, with her military son, was the most vocal about it, but all of us, I think, had been raised on the notion that World War II was the last good war. There were very clear bad guys: the Nazis with their death camps and pulp fiction experiments; Imperial Japan with their sneak attacks, kamikaze pilots and death marches; Fascist Italy and their… well, Mussolini was a dick.

I think we can all agree on that. Benito Mussoline might have been less of a monster than Hitler or Hirohito (or Stalin, for that matter, who was on our side for most of the war, but a murderer of incredible proportions), but he was still a giant, Italian dick that nobody really misses.

Over the years, I've come to take the hero worship of the previous generations with a grain of salt. The Greatest Generation was just the first generation to have really good publicity. History these days isn't written just by the victors, but by assholes with marketing degrees who work for advertising firms and political think tanks.

Still, it was a little refreshing to hear someone honestly say that the rest of the world (or about half of it anyway) could go to hell, if they could just have their friends, their family and maybe their innocence back. 

In Bedford, before we got to the D-Day Monument, they herded us into another rest stop, this one more modern with lots of glass, a little gift shop with crap to buy and a meeting room where they fed us quarters of chicken and a nice selection of starches.

The peach cobbler was thoroughly disappointing --like something served in a middle school cafeteria. I felt tainted for putting it in my mouth.

Funny thing, I ran into the brother of my high school government teacher. He managed the restaurant that provided the catering. We didn't talk about the food, just how his brother, my former government teacher had at the age of about 45 had gone back to school and gotten his law degree. 

Running well behind schedule (because we needed to see the walls of pamphlets and visit the gift shop before the actual attraction) we only got about 30 minutes at the actual memorial, which was pretty amazing.

Opened in 2001, the memorial is a solemn and moving tribute to the sacrifices made in the name of freedom that spans over 88 acres, represents every country involved with the invasion and the property includes a garden, sculpture and space for reflection.

Visitors can wander the grounds at their own speed or take one of the guided tours. According to tour coordinator, Jim, the full tour can take up to two hours.

Jim was full of stories and in his half hour made the morning drive almost worth it, but we only got the 30 minutes and then they wanted to get us on the bus. We needed to get to Wytheville in time for dinner.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part two.

Just about everyone on the tour was retired, semi-retired or planning to retire in a year or two. Only a few of them did travel as a full-time gig. Most of them were from the Midwest.

Bob from Minnesota (now living in Florida) put in 30 years with the 3M Corporation before he and his wife 
Mary started working for a tour company that specialized in group trips for seniors.

They were a nice couple who'd met in a bar over 40 years ago. Bob had kind of been a schmuck back then. He didn't call, but they still found each other. 

It was his second marriage; her first and Mary said that had been a terrible scandal at the time. She was raised Catholic and he had kids, too. 

"My mom didn't like it one bit," she said.

But circumstances changed her mind. She wanted to see her little girl married and after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Mary's mother made peace with her daughter's choice. 

Forty-plus years and a daughter together, it looked like it had worked out OK.

They liked to go on cruises. Bus tours were ok, but it wasn't as much fun for them. 

Jan from Chicago spent years teaching art before starting a website based business through Expedia. She was almost 70, had a daughter older than me and a son in his 20s who'd just gotten out of the military. 

Jan dressed like a cheerleader for Aerosmith, wore black nail polish and a black, leather trench coat. Her hair was a suspiciously authentic-looking dirty blond and she spent the first two hours on the bus talking almost nonstop about her nice house, her Porsche, her husband's former fantastic job and how he was going to pull some strings to get her son a job in Chicago.

She just wouldn't shut up. Nerves, I guess, but after the first hour, I sort of wanted to stow her with the luggage.

She was semi-retired and was on the substitute teacher roll for the Chicago school system. The travel business was a sideline. She got most of her bookings from online, but also helped arrange trips for the teachers she encountered in her day-to-day.

The way she talked about it was like she was a pot dealer.

Fae was a former social worker and somehow worked in dentistry before coming to work at her father-in-law’s business in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A small, round woman with short, curly hair, she laughed easily and seemed like she might have been a fairy godmother in a previous life. She had no idea how she'd wound up doing this sort of job. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but she liked it well enough --maybe because some of the places she took her clients were far, far away from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She really loved the west coast, northern California and, I think, Oregon. The scenery was beautiful and the people seemed very nice to her.

The three-day Post-Fam tour of scenic, rural Virginia (during the desiccated, dead of winter) was just an extra 50 bucks a head after they’d paid their fees for the convention in Charleston. It included motel accommodations, a couple of shows, a few attractions and practically all meals –plus a seemingly never-ending line of people ready, willing and practically begging for the chance to kiss your ass.

As far as getaways go, if you weren’t too particular, it was pretty decent deal.

There were plenty of stories on the bus about much better deals and insider only trips, but generally, the gravy days of travel were all over for these people.

Donna, an agent from got a deal to go to Singapore for two-weeks because she knew somebody in another office who was just looking for warm bodies. She had to pay $500 for that one, but it included airfare, accommodations, meals and who knows what else.

“It was too good to turn down,” she said.

Nobody was getting those kinds of deals now, though sometimes if they booked a certain number of clients onto a cruise somewhere, they got a free ticket.

They shared their horror stories. A couple of them had spent nights in hospital rooms, sitting with clients who'd taken a vacation only a couple of weeks after a heart attack or major surgery. A few of them had seen people die.

All of them seemed to be struggling to keep on doing their jobs and living their lives. Competition was fierce. Nobody thought much of a tour company called Diamond.

A guy named Tim, who knew more dirty jokes than any man alive, called them the K-mart of the touring business.

"They get the cheapest rooms, use the cheapest buses and the customer gets dick."

Just across the Virginia border, the bus stopped at a welcome center manned by a couple of grandmothers who'd brought cookies and cake to welcome us to the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be a scenic rest stop, but it looked like the sort of place bored, middle-class homosexuals might stop for anonymous sex in the bushes with other bored, middle-class homosexuals.

There were also vending machines if someone wanted to grab a diet coke or maybe some skittles afterwards.

It was a clean, if sort of non-descript location. Inside, dull-as-shit travel pamphlets, brochures and maps papered the walls. I found myself wondering, who in the fuck would stumble in here and be inspired to drive from here to Monticello, to see how the third President of the United States might have lived --you know, if you took away all the slaves and replaced them with poorly-payed state employees in polo shirts with name tags?

I pretended to look at the pamphlets then bolted for the bus after the stop was concluded. I left the cookies, which were a little bland, and grabbed a spare bottle of water out of reflex.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon -part 1

The snow started falling in the gray, early hours before dawn and continued to call to fall even as the bus pulled away from Charleston’s newly remodeled Sheraton.

It was a little after seven o’clock in the morning. Tour South’s three-day convention had finished in the city and there I was sitting in the back of the bus with about 20 travel agents and tour planners from 12 different states, on route to Southwestern Virginia for what was called a “Post-Fam” tour.

"Post" meant after the event. "Fam" meant familiar. Someone had to explain that to me.

The convention had been a big deal for Charleston. Travel planners had come to meet with convention bureaus from dozens of cities and counties from all over the south –places, like Charleston, that wanted tourism dollars.

Charleston had hosted and done its best to put on its best face –not an easy task with a chemical spill in the water supply still very much on everyone’s minds.

How that all went, I have no idea. Everybody was very polite about Charleston, but nobody openly admitted they'd be bringing busloads of tourists to take in the dubious scenic beauty of a place usually referred to as "chemical valley." 

I was not invited to attend that part of the show --or the pre-fam tour which wandered around parts unknown. 

The Post Fam tour was something else. The bus headed to Southwestern Virginia, to Wytheville, Abingdon and Bristol with a few stops in between.

Tour South asked if The Gazette wanted to send someone along –and I jumped at it like a dog begging for bacon. It hardly mattered that I’d been to Abingdon, Wytheville and Bristol; had practically grown up there. Winter had been horrible in Charleston, what with the bad weather, potholes and whatever weird shit was in the water.

Slumped down toward the back, crowded in a narrow seat with a backpack stuffed with an aging laptop, two cameras of suspect quality, plus an assortment of pens, pencils and notebooks, I tried to blend, but I stood out. I didn’t have a badge with a travel company’s name on it. My clothes were all wrong: no cruise ship or airline logo. My bag was a generic. Everyone else had one tagged by a leisure company, resort destination or mid-range city nobody thinks about seeing.   

Also, virtually everyone on the bus was at least 65 --discounting the driver and the two people from the convention bureau. A couple of people were around 80, but most hovered somewhere in the low 70s.

I'm 43 and had never felt so young in my entire life.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cash out

The realtor contacted me to say that she couldn't make our meeting Friday. It was Good Friday and I should have seen it coming. The whole day was a waste --nobody wanted to be on the phone, nobody wanted to do any business.

We rescheduled for Tuesday and I'll probably move it. The week after a holiday weekend, even Easter, tends to get a little harried.

Still, the meeting will take place this week and the house will go up for sale. It's been a long time coming. I've said I was going to do it and then pulled back. The last time I half convinced myself that I needed to take some time to make some improvements, make it more attractive for sale.

That's sort of crazy talk. Most of the improvements the books want you to make when you're planning on selling a house cost more than whatever money you'd get out of it: buy new appliances, get a 70 or 80 percent return on that; put down new carpeting, get 50 percent of the money you put into it back.

It's ludicrous --particularly when money is the chief reason I'm selling the old place.

There are layers to that.

Part of it is the cost of living; that's gone up. Everything is more expensive. Part of it is that my wages are stagnant; I work for people who have no trouble raising the prices for the items in the snack machines every other year by ten percent or so, but can't add half that to my wages every other year.

Instead, they seem to begrudge every penny paid to us, which is demoralizing.

Part of it is the Affordable Care Act. I have no beef with getting health insurance and think everyone needs it, but the reason I didn't have it wasn't because I didn't have access to insurance or because no one would insure me. It was because I just couldn't afford the coverage.

I'm tired of waiting for it to get better. I'm tired of fidgeting over the monthly bills, trying to balance the mortgage with the utilities and the grocery bill. I'm tired of wondering if I need to get a third job just to keep up.

Piss on this.

So, I'm scaling back. If I get rid of the house, it's less money out of my pocket every month. I can maybe move closer to where I work, where I shop and where I invariably end up. Less fuel and time spent.

And if I get rid of the house, when somebody out of the area offers me a job, I don't have as much trouble taking it.

That's a possibility, too.

I love what I do, but what I do doesn't give me much love back.

So, the house is going up for sale. We'll see if there are any takers.