Winter Quarters in Portland: December 3 March 3, 2011

Salt water at last! We’d been to Sea Breeze RV Park earlier in the year to check it out and sign up for three months. The park consists of three distinct units: The Bay, The Hill and The Valley. It’s positioned right on the edge of Nueces Bay, looking directly across to Corpus Christi, about 4 miles across. To the left is the causeway across to the city, with its high bridge to permit heavy commercial traffic. The Hill is just that — an elevated area on the other side of a small watercourse that’s very crowded. The Valley is a section on the main side, set back away from the water. And then there’s The Bay! It’s a waterfront section with a peninsula that reaches out toward the bay and holds two lagoons. In the left hand picture below, we are the second unit in, with the white truck in front of it. The larger lagoon is in the foreground. At the inner end of the lagoon, there are sites for transients and a large grassy play area. Adjacent to it are a year-round pool, hot tub and The Place, headquarters for morning coffee, afternoon libations and community meals. Portland was a little thin on commercial outlets, but with Corpus only 6 miles away, we had everything we needed from service, merchandise and entertainment perspectives.

Heaven. Well, almost. The quantity and variety of sea birds in the lagoons were to die for. Herons? Hah! They were plenty, of course, but they shared the ponds and flats with multiple varieties of egrets, plovers, curlews, ibis, sanderlings … not to mention white pelicans and roseate spoonbills. But we soon discovered that the wind blows constantly, often quite energetically. In fact, at four o’clock on a January morning, it blew 80 mph while a tornado passed by half a mile away, moving one light trailer off its blocks and damaging equipment all over. And there was an ice storm that closed everything. Most significant, it closed the causeway for two days, not for road conditions but rather for ice falling from the bridge superstructure.

While we certainly had good times touring and making new friends, it was a strange time. I earlier mentioned that I’d received a large basket order from our new Schip friend John Walker. On top of that, I received another large order from our friends in OKC. I didn’t work at them constantly, but that volume was actually a nagging chore until late January. But wait…there’s more. The leading selling item in the Serena Shop is Yard Art — cut out life size Schipperkes in different poses. We continue to volunteer to make them once a year for collected orders. This winter, we sold about 60. That means cutting them from plywood, sanding, painting, inserting posts for yard display, packing and shipping. They took up a good part of our other month in Portland. Our next door neighbor, Ron from Canada, told me that he loved to relax in his chair and watch me run around all day.

On top of that, our eldest, Teddy, had several seizures in February. He went through a battery of tests with the best vet in Corpus and was started on a phenobarbital routine. He had one after that, and the dose was strengthened.

Everything else about or stay was great. Well, wait a minute. Dot’s 88 year old mom took a header in the kitchen in late December and broke her left femur. She now sports a titanium rod, and she made it through rehab in record time, determined to get the hell out of there. Dot flew over to St. Augustine for a five day visit in early February, postponed a couple of days by the abovementioned ice storm.

And there were two botched adventures. The largest colony of whooping cranes nests on an island offshore. There are boat trips to the island several days a week. Because of our workload, we were late in planning. We called ahead to make a reservation and they said “don’t bother, just come up.” But when we got there, the boat was otherwise in use for the annual crane festival. A similar thing happened at the King Ranch, the must-see million acre, multi industry megalith. We drove an hour to get there in time for the first tour of the day, only to discover that all of that day’s tours were already filled. Our planning has gotten better since.

So the best way to end this episode are on the good times. Oh, wait another minute. I forgot. The Wichita Bandit’s replacement PC got to a point where it was more trouble than worth. So I sent it to a watery grave and bought a(nother) brand new one in Corpus. No, we’re not independently wealthy. We just don’t suffer fools – or foolish equipment – gladly.

Okay. Now. We visited Rockport several times. It’s a beautiful artsy town about 25 miles north of CC. These visits were déjà vu; we spent a week there in March with the intention of making it winter quarters. We picked Portland instead because of the waterfront site and the proximity of the Big City for entertainment purposes. Friends Judy and Peter were there spending another winter. Friends Martha and Jim from Alden, Iowa were due but arrived very late because of Jim’s unexpected spate of illness. We did get an opportunity to spend a day with them in Portland before we left. You’ll find our earlier visit with them in Alden, IA in the June 16-17, 2010 section of this travelogue.

I got a chance to see at least one of my two annual Christmas rituals, a performance of The Nutcracker by the Corpus Christi Ballet Company. It was held at the city’s major entertainment complex, the American Bank Center, a multi-use convention center that includes both a sports arena and an auditorium. The auditorium is named for native daughter Selena, the Tejano singer who was tragically murdered by the manager of her fan club in 1995 just as her career was beginning to soar.

We got another opportunity to head for the American Bank Center in February – this time the arena – for a performance of Cirque de Soleil. We had never seen any of their fabulous performances except on TV, and what a difference. This show was Alegria, especially appropriate for us since it’s the name of our youngest female, commonly known as Allie. We had seats in the fourth row, 25 feet from the stage, for the first act and front row seats for Act II. So we not only got close up but also personal as the clowns cavorted among us and the aerialists soared overhead.

We took a day to drive up to Port Aransas, where we crossed on the free 24 hour ferry to the festive town on Mustang Island. Then we headed south to the famed beaches of Padre Island, stopping to walk out to the Gulf and explore the campgrounds available out in this paradise.

The focal point of Corpus Christi harbor is the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier that was commissioned in 1943 and served, off and on, until 1991 becoming the longest service Essex class carrier. Originally scheduled to be named Cabot, she received her revised name as a result of the sinking of a previous Lexington at the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942 after almost twenty years in service. Originally outfitted as a battle cruiser, the earlier Lex was refitted as one of our first carriers.

The Lex in Corpus is CV16. The year of her commissioning saw her in service at Wake Island, the Marshalls and the Gilberts. She was successfully involved in raids off Japan in 1944, but her skipper – later replaced – refused to participate in night engagements. Illuminated by Japanese parachute flares, she took a torpedo the first night. Officers in the stern were killed, where the ship sank five feet. Shored up, she limped back to Pearl for emergency repairs and then to Bremerton, WA for refitting. Tokyo Rose crowed the Blue Ghost (she was called that because she cruised without the traditional paint) as sunk.

Little did Ms. Rose know, however. Back in combat, she earned 11 battle stars. One of the most pronounced was at Leyte Gulf, where her participation scored many hits. Seven days later, she was hit in the tower by a kamikaze, causing numerous deaths. Yet she fought on without respite; among other things, she saved the USS Ticonderoga from a similar fate. Tokyo Rose again crowed her sinking, yet the ship kept rising from the ashes and tormenting the enemy until it surrendered.
Decommissioned in 1947, she was refitted and recommissioned in 1955, serving in the Lebanon crisis, in the Far East, and as a training and education platform thereafter. She was the last wooden decked carrier in active service. In addition to her 11 battle stars and other awards, she received the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism in battle.

The Lex sits in 16 feet of concrete, calculated to keep her inert in the worst possible hurricane. Her flight deck is covered with examples of wartime aircraft, primarily from her shining era. Visitors have the opportunity to explore her from the boilers and propeller shafts all the way up 12 stories to the bridge – and I took every step and twist and turn to do so. In the engine room, an old sailor described the propulsion system. Who provided the boilers?” I asked. “B&W,” he answered. I was curious, because my dad worked for B&W’s major competitor for most of his life; his company, Combustion Engineering, supplied boilers for may ships including the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus. I then asked him if he knew the rotation speed of the four propellers at cruising speed. He didn’t know, but thought my guess of 300-400 rpm was reasonable. About ten minutes later, as I continued my exploration, he chased me down to show me a table that proved my guess to be high. His dedication to detail was impressive.

The most fascinating feature of the ship for me was the arresting wire – tailhook – system. The pilot has four shots 50 feet apart to catch his tailhook on a wire to slow him down, and each wire is hydraulically cushioned to provide the brake he needs without stopping him abruptly on his nose. The system is essentially the same today as the elaborate configuration below decks on the Lex. That – and the skill of the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) stands between him and disaster. The pilot follows a “meatball” – an orange dot in the cockpit that moves above or below the correct landing angle.

As a museum, the ship presents more than her construction to the tourist. There is a humungous theatre with Megasystems ( a kin to Imax) presentations, an aircraft simulator and other hands-on and eyes-on attractions. Programs for kids include sleepovers. And once a year, the Museum sells out its Stage Door Canteen event, a night of 1940’s dancing and dining.

You can see many pictures at

http://www.usslexington.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=38&Itemid=49.

Dot and I also ventured across the channel to the Texas State Aquarium. Heralded as “the premier aquarium showcasing the Gulf of Mexico,” it fell way short of our expectations for its steep entry price. Many of the exhibits were viewed through small windows in the wall, each purporting to contain three or four species. But in many cases, virtually nothing was to be seen except bubbles and props. The sea lion exhibit was wonderful – very up close and personal. The three dolphins were viewable both above and underneath the water, and while they may have been playful in a show, they were unexciting offstage.

Our other big intake was the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. Now this was a worthwhile adventure. For one thing, it is the home of the replicas of Columbus’s three ships. The replicas were funded by the Spanish government and launched in 1991. After coastal exhibition, they sailed across The Pond in 1992 to celebrate the quincentennial of the original voyage. They visited 18 U.S. ports. Corpus Christi was the most successful, and a local non-profit group was formed to secure a lease on them. Alas, they quickly fell on hard times. A barge broke loose in the channel and severely damaged the Nina and Santa Maria. They remain in dry dock at the museum, fighting for funding to complete repairs. The Pinta languishes in the water at the main city marina, closed to the public and supported by 24 hour pumps. The replicas were simply not built with materials to sustain longevity.

Nevertheless, the trip aboard the Nina, nearing completion of its restoration, is thrilling, as is the walk around the larger Santa Maria. The latter, a nao, was larger cargo vessel with significant capacity. The Nina and Pinta, both caravels, were smaller, lighter vessels principally used for coastal traffic and fishing.

There’s a lot more maritime archeological history there as well, much of it involving shipwrecks of Spanish and French ships in the 16th and 17th century. This museum is a partner with the Victoria Coastal Bend Museum in developing the story of LaSalle.

An exhibit called “Seeds of Change’ chronicles how five sources transferred formed the culture of the New World: corn, potatoes, diseases, horse and sugar.

Both the history and the natural history of the area are displayed in fascinating depth.

When we left Sea Breeze, we made two pledges. Despite the view, we won’t plan another winter hiatus there. And we’ll try to do better about not planning excursions until the last minute!

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