From Nashville, Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile to Pensacola and back
I left Nashville on Thanksgiving morning. I intended to take the Natchez Trace parkway, but in my haste to get on the road, I realized I did not have time to make my destination in Natchez before the required holiday check-in time. So I opted for the expressway via I-40. I was greeted by a continuous host of road-kills for hundreds of miles. I guess deer hunting season had started, and it was obvious by the carnage along the roadway. It’s fortunate I did not decide to leave at night, which I often do to avoid heavy traffic, but I figured T-day would be easy travel’n.
About an hour into my journey I pulled off the exit along the way looking for a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. After a few stops, I realized that they were all closed for the holiday – and everyone else. Was this going to be a day of hunger on the most sacred American holiday?
6 hours later, I arrived just in time for check-in, but Google sent me to the house on the opposite corner of the intersection. Gates being locked, I scaled the fence only to alarm the resident at their back door. He was convinced that it was one of his fathers friends playing a practical joke on him.
About 15 minutes after the appointed check-in time I found the stately Choctaw Hall B&B empty and locked. In my haste to pack for the trip, I had forgotten my car charger adaptor. At this point my iPad mini and iPhone were completely out of juice. Rummaging thru the trunk of my car, I found another one I had forgotten about, and called the proprietor of my temporary home. I was certain I would be feasting on a can of Polish sardines, nuts and rice cakes that night.
My hosts were astonished to learn that I had not received their text. They had walked down the street to briefly attend a party. The couple raced back to greet me. The husband Lee grabbed my bags and carried them down to the lower level were the B&B rooms were located. He asked me if I would join them for Thanksgiving dinner upstairs at 6 PM. YES SIR!
I was seated with Lee, his wife, the elderly property owner David and four Texans staying for the night. We were seated at a large round table in the foyer between the library and dining room of this opulent four-story 1846 mansion. The grand dining room had a static display set for a 12 course meal. This exhibit is for daily tours of Choctaw Hall, except today there were none.
Everyone was quite pleasant and we had a wonderful conversation over several delicious courses of turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, ham, biscuits and much more. There were five or six dessert options. I chose the chess pie and minced meat pie (a British specialty). The owner David asked me how I liked the latter. “It kind of reminds me of a sweet fruit cake. I think it would pair well with brandy”. “Right you are sir!” and he raced to the kitchen for a bottle and poured everyone a small glass in the Sherry Glasses that were already pre-positioned on the dinner table.
We enjoyed each others company for over two hours. Towards the end I spoke for about 20 minutes about the The First World Flight that I am currently researching. To my astonishment, the entire group of seven listed attentively during my entire dissertation.
At the end, one of the Texas ladies asked me if I was a writer or movie producer. No I said, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, with a smile. I do have a cousin that has six or seven Emmys. What’s his name she fired back, seemingly thinking I was telling tall tales. Billy Pittard I responded. You can look it up. You can also reference these adventures on my blog: bnabucketlist.com.
The next morning I got a VIP tour of all four levels of the house. I thought the Cedar Grove Mansion in Vicksburg was the pinnacle, but Choctaw Hall set the bar even higher. I’m not sure how far back David’s family owned this place, but I observed at least three generations on the wall in the music room. The three story cantilever stairwell is simply amazing. The Hermitage has nothing on this one.
David and Lee suggested I stop and see the Catholic Grand Cathedral down the street before I leave. It is the only one in the state of Mississippi, and took about 20 years to build. I had the place to myself the day after Thanksgiving.
Looking south towards my route to New Orleans, I selected a B&B near Port Hudson where my great-great grandfather was positioned at one point during the American Civil War. I think it is the last place on my bucket-list of his locations during that awful conflict. Captain Bearden and his twin brother Edwin narrowly escaped capture there during the Vicksburg Campaign, only to be taken down in the battles of Atlanta and Chickamauga respectively. They survived the war, but carried the scars for the rest of their lives.
It occurred to me that one of the 8 fliers in The First World Flight of 1924 was from Mississippi: Henry “Hank” Ogden. Referencing the original 1925 edition of the book I purchased on eBay a few weeks before, I learned that he was from the very small town of Woodville near the Louisiana state line. This was right on my path. Fueling up there I decided to check out the antique store across the street. The local elderly lady that owned it said she had never heard of Ogden and suggested I inform the local paper: The Woodville Republican. It is the oldest newspaper, as well as the oldest business, in continuous incorporated operation in Mississippi.
After touring the battlefield, I decided to hit one more antebellum mansion before I left the state. A road sign directed me to Rosemont. It’s easy to miss, but I found the back entrance and made it up the twisty gravel road. There was one car in the parking lot and they were wrapping up their tour. A polite black man named Jerome greeted me and I paid him the $20 admission fee. He said they use to get bus loads of people there, but I was the second visitor he had seen in two weeks! He had never heard about Hank Ogden either.
The house was not grand by the standards of Natchez or Vicksburg, but I could tell it had some age to it. To my amazement, he took me on a 30 minute tour of the former home of Jefferson Davis. He lived there from age 2 until he went off to Washington to be a Senator, Secretary of War and then on to the Presidency of the Confederate States of America.
Did the bus tour companies red-line Rosemont because of Black Lives Matter? If so, it certainly is at the expense of Jerome. What a shame. There is no way he can live on what ever he gets for the tours. I regretted not giving him a large tip.
I stopped in St. Francisville, Louisiana for the evening at a quaint old antique roadside cottage complex. The covered carports between each one have been converted to a sitting area with a courtyard between two rows of six little tiny-homes.
I guess my B&B host went to high school in the 1970’s because the outdoor speakers played non-stop classic rock from the period. Most people seem to like the memories evoked by that sensory experience. I am not one of them. It was not loud enough to keep me up, put I could hear them clearly as I drifted off to sleep listening to Reelin’ In the Years. A few songs were soothing, but memories of my old Hillwood High School are not from my favorite chapter of life.
I arrived in New Orleans Saturday afternoon about 4 PM. The instructions on parking were very vague and I waited for over two hours for the mobile valet to arrive. Fortunately, like most Air B&B’s you check yourself in with a computer lock that has a code. The apartment was a few blocks from the Museum, so I could go back and forth.
The destination in The Big Easy was the National World War II museum on Magazine Street. I hadn’t been there in 23 years (it was The D-Day Museum then) with my two sons when they were little.
They have added five more buildings since then, and the sixth had just been dedicated by Tom Hanks a few weeks before. The Liberty Pavilion’s theme are the events following Germany & Japan’s surrender, including the Holocaust, the War Trials of Germany & Japan, the rise of the Cold War and beyond.
A sweet retired psychologist named Karen working at the information desk, said that they were given special training on how to deal with grieving people affected by the Holocaust theater movie. It is a powerful 30 minutes of interviews with survivors, filmed by USC Shoah Foundation in the 1990’s, when many were still living.
Everyone said it would take three days to cover the grounds. I did it in two. This was accomplished by taking my Disney World play book procedures: start at the back, and work your way forward. For the first two hours I had the place to myself starting in the middle of The Road to Tokyo. I made it all the way thru The Road to Berlin practically alone.
I was struck by the number of Japanese visitors both days. I wonder if they have to come here to get the full story?
Part of the new building included women of World War II. It is called Our War Too. I went over it closely, and watched both videos. There is one big problem here: not a word about Cornelia Fort, the Nashville native, Ward-Belmont Alumni, WASP which was the first female pilot to lose her life in flight, on active duty. I think that the suggestion box will respond to this soon Karen assured me. Cornelia was also at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked – in the air, training another pilot!
Cornelia was the daughter of Dr. Rufus Fort, one of the founders of the National Life Insurance Company in Nashville. Their farm was adjacent to my great uncles in East Nashville near the present day Shelby Park. My uncle J.B. Henderson flew a Beech Bonanza off his farm pasture. His two sons, and even his daughter Ceacy were pilots too. Dr. Fort considered this a much too dangerous hobby and required his two sons to plague an oath not to take to the air. He failed to think of including his daughter in this agreement. The rest is prophetic history.
Monday morning I headed out early to see the U.S.S. Alabama in Mobile Bay. My Infinity computer said I had enough gas for the trip, but entering the expressway tunnel under the bay it went down to five miles – and abruptly dropped to ZERO. White knuckles all the way out of the tunnel.
Admission was $15 dollars with my $5 military discount. I was surprised by the large aircraft collection they had. I decided to see The Mighty Mo first.
Entering the hatch at deck level, I was reminded of the NAVY smell. Weather it’s an old airplane, ship or even operational buildings, they all have the same odor. I have yet to figure out why.
By Monday, the tourists were tournée en force. Dodging all the screaming children running around, I sped through the compartments at a brisk pace, in order to make my final objective at the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola. I had a 2-4 PM check in window for my B&B on Pensacola Bay too (I found out these windows are usually very flexible, this one included).
It had been 23 years since I had last seen the museum, and 41 years since I was a young Ensign in pursuit of my Wings of Gold at NPA. This place is hallowed ground for me.
I was greeted by a Marine 2nd Lieutenant and a Navy Ensign at the bag-search table. This was the first new addition to the facility I noticed. At the help desk I was greeted by a guy about my age with miniature Naval Flight Officer wings like mine. He had been thru the Officer & a Gentleman School (AOCS) just like I had, two years after me. We were having a great chat until interrupted by an older couple looking for something.
My main objective was to find a curator at the museum. I had emailed the general email address about a rare photograph I had discovered in the Nashville Archives, but had received no reply. Sometimes it’s better to just show up in person when this happens. I definitely learned that one from my Dad. He was known to push the limits with this tactic.
In the administrative office, the only one there was in the far back office. It was the deputy director of the Museum. He was very cordial, even though I had blown in unannounced. Ironically his last name was Godspeed.
I told him I had something he might want to get a copy of. It’s a photograph of the U.S.S. Shenandoah, a rigid airship about the size of the Hindenburg. It was designated the ZR-1. I knew that this was one of the oldest negatives in our collection of aerial images from the 105th Observation Squadron in Nashville, because the ZR-1 was lost in a violent thunderstorm in 1924.
I also flew military planes with the Air National Guard after my Naval Air Reserve service in Millington, Tennessee. By then, the 105th were in C-130’s. They now fly drones from the comfort of Berry Field Nashville (BNA).
I told him I would email him the best copy I had, and if we can ever get funding to have it restored (it buckled with age), I would send a better reproduction.
As I looped around the first floor, there she was: the T-2 Buckeye Navy jet trainer. This was the intermediate trainer for me at Training Squadron VT-10 there. It almost brought tears to my eyes, and as I read this to my mother last night, I could barely choke the words out:
Letter to Parents after B-4 Check-flight – 23 March 83
I flew my B–4 flight yesterday afternoon and did pretty well. I got an above average grade in my navigation hitting most all my turn points right on course. The only significant problem I had in the whole flight were my time estimates which were off due to a math error on my part (go figure). My pilot told me that the “hop” was above average and that I had good potential. I think this was the first flight so far that I really felt in control of everything and got a chance to call all the shots.
It was really something to bring that plane down. We started a decent from a cruising altitude of 25,000 feet, which was well above the cloud layer obscuring most of the Gulf Coast. That was really beautiful. It was just about sunset and the cloud layer looked like a huge amber quilt.
Penetrating into the clouds was kind of creepy however. It seemed that instantly the clouds engulfed us and it got very dark immediately. I groped for the reo-stat control to my side and adjusted the instrument lights. It got bumpy and I felt my insides groan, but I kept my instrument scan checking airspeed, altitude, course, airspeed, altitude, course.
Keying my helmet mic: “Approach Control Zero Foxtrot 27 leaving one-six thousand”. To instructor pilot: “Sir descend to 1200 feet…passing one 5000 feet… “Sir mark right heading zero niner zero… passing ten thousand…Sir mark right heading zero five zero”
Approach: “Foxtrot 27 contact Sherman tower at the final approach fix with the gear” “Zero Fox 27 Roger, switching to the tower” “Sir slow to gear speed, standby for the landing checklist: fuel transfer-off, speed breaks-out, wheels-three down and locked, etc. “Tower Zero Foxtrot 27 final approach fix with the gear”.
Tower: “Zero Foxtrot 27 is cleared to land on seven right, winds one two zero at twenty, altimeter 29.96”. “Zero Foxtrot 27 cleared on the right 29.96”.
Just about that time, we descended from 1200 feet and broke through the clouds, and there it was right on course – the beautiful blue approach lights of Sherman Field! “On glideslope… above glideslope… on speed… slightly fast… on glideslope… on speed… on glideslope… on speed etc. – touchdown”.
I never would have thought it possible. I’ll never forget thinking as we approached Denver International last May, how anyone could break through a layer of clouds just 1000 feet above the ground and land. We were also “crabbing” about 20 degrees to the right of the runway, due to the high wind speed. We’re on short-final looking over our left shoulder to look down the runway approach. It just didn’t seem possible – but it happened and it was great!
Well, let’s hope I can pull it off again tomorrow when I am sure I will probably fly my B-5 check flight.
The last nostalgia stop was the legendary McQuire’s Irish Pub and Restaurant for a pint and Shepards Pie. When one of my buddies got his wings he was witnessed standing on the table drinking them down with a pitcher of beer there.
Thus ended my full-moon voyage into the past
As I headed out at the crack of dawn, with the full moon above me, I sang: “Up in the morning with the rising sun, Class 29 on a little run. I don’t know but I’ve been told, Navy wings are made of gold. I don’t know but it’s been, said Air Force wings are made of lead. Low, right left, lefty right left. Love to double time!”
Lt. Cdr. Bob Henderson, VP-67 & Captain 105th ALS