Monthly Archives: July 2016

Paradise Lost?

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Upon seeing our backyard for the first time, some have described it as a “Garden of Eden.” A very peaceful spot centered by nice, cool blue water surrounded by a screen of greenery that cocoons you from most of the outside world. But it didn’t always look this way, nor has it been easy to maintain.

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Our efforts transforming this backyard began over 17 years ago and a detailed chronicling of its history can be found here.

At times, it seemed that our backyard paradise suffered almost biblical-like plagues. First came the winds, in the form of remnants of Hurricane Katrina that took out one of my favorite trees, a weeping willow.

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Then one year there was the ice storm that took out a couple more trees along with part of our fence.

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Another year, an extended freeze of single digit temperatures killed off our prolific rosemary bush and the top of our mammoth fig tree.

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But Mother Nature wasn’t the only culprit that wreaked havoc on our backyard.

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Not as severe as biblical locusts but what originally looked like cute little pinecones, were bagworms that happen to love Leyland cypresses and now we discover Arborvitae as well.

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This latest attack comes on the heels of us just having to remove three of our mature arborvitae infested with these little critters and replace them with ones less than half their size.

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While there are sprays that can be used to treat these pests, one of the more effective techniques is manual removal by hand followed by a flushing down the toilet to prevent their return.

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And just this year, a biological disease infected our ornamental cherry tree that required its removal, leaving yet another gaping hole in our green cocoon.

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Over the 16 plus years that we have battled with and reacted to these mini disasters, I have been the “pool boy” maintaining the oasis at the center of this garden. Only in our first year did we close the pool so for me, this has been a year round endeavor. This we decided that first year as we looked out on the tarp covered pool with the water tubes along the deck as anchors, that it resembled a superfund waste site needing a major clean up. The beautiful blue surrounded by snow was our reward for keeping it open through the winter.

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But my efforts at keeping the pool clean and chemically balanced over the years have not gone without significant effort on my part. I cannot begin to fathom how many trips I’ve made to the pool store to get a water sample tested and if needed purchase more chemicals for treatment. Or the numbers of times I have removed and cleaned the cartridge filters with high-pressure water.

Whenever things blew into the water, the original Polaris did a fine job of getting up larger pieces of debris but that, which was to small to be captured by its mesh bag I had to manually vacuum, another activity I’ve performed too numerous times to count.

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Thanks to the recommendation by a friend, I purchased a low voltage vacuum system with a finer mesh bag that does a much better job of cleaning the pool, even picking up granules of sand that often blow into the pool. Think of it almost as a Roomba for your pool.

I’ve also dealt with algae growth periodically, a Mustard variety being the worst. As the trees and shrubs grew around our yard over the years, there was additional potential for things to blow or fall into the pool, providing more organic matter upon which the algae could feed.

In spite of my many efforts over the years, I think of all the money we have saved by me performing the pool maintenance, money that no doubt went into some of the landscape to make this a paradise-like setting. But this year, even my best efforts have been thwarted.

Much like the 17-year locust plague, this has been the 17-year algae plague. As I write this in mid-July, I have yet to get it fully under control. It was a major challenge just to get the pool ready for Memorial Day when all our family was in town.

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Whether it has been the fault of an early heat, or stronger winds blowing even more algae sustenance into the pool, or a combination of both, it has been an infrequent day when the sparkling blue waters have invited us in for a swim. More often, we are faced with a cloudy pool or a green pool. In spite of my comments to my wife that even in this state, it’s still cleaner than swimming in a lake, she hasn’t ventured into the unsettled waters.

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Green areas still to be vacuumed

One Saturday, I spent over nine hours vacuuming the pool. Only to be left by the end of the day with a cloudy pool that I still couldn’t see the bottom for all the fine particles I had disturbed.

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For me, not being one to give up an effort, it was my wife who finally called in the professionals—the pool company. What they said was most interesting.

Understandably, there are no doubt differences of opinion as to how best to maintain a pool. One of the selling points by our pool contractor for installing cartridge instead of sand filtration was that vacuuming through the cartridges followed by cleaning them eliminates the loss of pool chemicals by not vacuuming to waste which basically flushes pool water to a storm drain.

But the pool professionals disagreed. In fact, they commented that some of the algae might be so small as to not even be caught by the cartridge filter membrane. If that were true, that would certainly explain the cloudiness when I vacuumed, which resulted from me just redistributing throughout the pool, the dead algae that had settled on the bottom. They also thought that we didn’t have good water circulation at the bottom of the pool and even though chemically the water at the surface was fine, what was below was deficient and allowed the algae to grow. When I found out what it would cost for them to treat and vacuum the pool, my nine-hour vacuuming hell quickly prompted me to agree to their offer.

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This is what the pool looked like after their two visits. And although some dead algae accumulated not long after they came, I used their technique and vacuumed to waste. It took less than 30 minutes to get rid of the dead algae leaving the pool looking like this.

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Admittedly, I had to add water for several hours following my vacuuming to waste, but it will still be well worth it to keep the pool looking nice and blue. In fact it was not only nice enough for my wife, but our granddaughter as well.

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Paradise regained!

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The last time my brother and I got together for one of our Bro Go weekends, was December of 2014 when we went to Disney World, which for me was my first ever visit. One of the things we enjoyed doing together there was partaking of some of the liquid refreshments available—specifically beer.

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In addition to having a number of common interests and both working in the pharmaceutical industry, we both enjoy trying new and interesting beers. (Previously I have written that my favorite beer is an IPA (India Pale Ale), a beer preference I acquired thanks to my brother.) We don’t get to do this together very often since we live over 1,000 miles apart. So whenever we try something new that is particularly tasty, we typically text a photo of it to each other along with a description.

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And in spite of the distance, we have been known to having beer tastings over the telephone where we each try a beer and describe what it tastes like. When we do get together for our sibling get together (SIBSAB) or Bro Go, we tend to focus on trying a variety of beers.

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Since we are both beer lovers and get to travel a lot for business, we each also have had the opportunity to visit a number of breweries around the world. But recently we got to do something new that we had never done before. Take a brewery tour together.

In June, we were in North Carolina for a combined family vacation. And Asheville (and NC in general) since becoming a beer mecca is a great place to take a tour. Each of us having read the story behind Sierra Nevada…

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…their recently opened brewery just south of Asheville was our planned destination. A word to the wise if you plan to visit: book early. I thought I was but when I went online several weeks before our trip, I found that there were only two tickets available for the entire week we were going to be there, one at 4:00 PM and one at 5:00 PM on Monday.

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We arrived 45 minutes early hoping that we would be able to take the tour together rather than separately. Sure enough, they had some cancellations and so were able to accommodate us both on the 4:00 PM tour. And being there so early, we were also able to taste a flight of beers in their restaurant bar before the tour started…

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…which we finished just in time for the tour.

The tour starts with a video of the history of the company. It was a story my brother and I were both familiar with having recently read the book. And we immediately recognized many of the over 30-year old photos in the video from the book while we sipped on a complimentary glass of their signature pale ale.

Then the walking tour began with stops at different stages of the incoming raw material receiving and preparation steps. Our favorite stop was at the hop room, a quite chilly room where the hops were removed from bales and sorted into bins by variety.

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In our pharmaceutical workplaces, we would have been required to gown up and glove up before even entering such a room. And amazingly we were allowed and even encouraged to pick out a hop, break it into two halves, and rub it between our hands to release the aroma, something never allowed in our own workplaces. It was most surprising how different the aroma was for the three different varieties of hops we tried. The most expensive one was the Citra, which had a citrus like aroma.

Note the 3/4 write over on the lot number, a huge documentation violation in the pharmaceutical industry

Note the 3/4 write over on the lot number, a huge documentation violation in the pharmaceutical industry

Next came the brew room.

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Sierra Nevada is known for its beautiful copper brew kettles, a throwback to centuries old brewery techniques, and an interesting story in itself of how the original kettles were acquired for their brewery in Chico, CA. Even though these modern ones are stainless steel on the inside, the only other brewery where I have ever seen this type of kettles was the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam.

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Following a tour to the mammoth storage tanks that looked almost like fuel tanks for the space shuttle, was a visit to the packaging area where seeing the millions of bottles being filled just made us appropriately thirsty for the final stop on the tour, the tasting room.

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Here we were able to sample 8 different beers they had on tap.

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Obviously our favorites were the last two, the IPAs with their elevated IBUs (International Bittering Unit).  These samples were quite small (less than 1 oz.) so before we left, we decided to whet our whistle with one more beer in the Tap Room.

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And our final “one for the road” was another beer in one of their intriguing growlers, uniquely shaped like their copper brew kettles. This one we enjoyed back at our mountain cabin filled with one of their IPAs.

While technically it wasn’t one of our planned Bro Go weekends, it was a few hours together carved out of our week long family vacation where we got to share one of the things we love doing together.  We have already started planning our next Bro Go, one to Portland, OR where we intend to explore the huge west coast brewery universe. But in the mean time, thanks to our “hop” experience, I can enjoy a new variety of IPA, one I might not have ever tried without the knowledge gained of the Citra Hop.

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Montreat – A New Generation

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Previously, not once, but twice, I have written about what a special place Montreat is to me. It was my parents who started coming here in the 1950s and my first visit was when I was just 2 years old.

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After my wife and I started our family, it was our kids who also accompanied us to Montreat.

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But this year, having recently turned 60, I enjoyed another treat in Montreat—introducing a fourth generation to this unique mountain retreat.

Thanks to my daughter and niece’s efforts, we had a family get together in Montreat and two of my three grandchildren were able to come. It was an event I had anticipated for well over a year and one that I had very much looked forward to. In advance, I had recalled all of the fun activities I had experienced growing up in Montreat and looked forward to sharing those with my grandchildren.

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It took travel from the east coast, the west coast and multiple points in between, for all of us to come together. Even though not all of our family members could come, we had a total of 17 present in one large three-story mountain cabin.

Anyone who has spent time in Montreat knows it often rains no matter what the time of year. So one of the activities we did was sitting on the porch in the morning, drinking coffee, sometimes watching the rain, but each time enjoying the mountain air. This house came well equipped with a large enough porch for six rockers…

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…and one grandchild size rocker.

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Later in the day, these rockers could even be used while napping.

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But my favorite use was holding one of my grandchildren and rocking away the time.

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Another activity I had looked forward to was taking my grandson and granddaughter to the little park with a mountain stream running through it.

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There are swings there that allow you to swing out over the bubbling brook providing a wonderful background chorus to the laughs of delight of a small child.

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And even within earshot of these peaceful sounds, swings for toddlers offer exciting fun.

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With the sound of the mountain stream like the Call of a Siren almost everywhere in Montreat, rock hopping in the frigid stream is another popular activity we did growing up.

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For two young toddlers, the stream in the park offered a perfect beginner’s course. While part of the challenge is hopping from rock to rock without falling into the icy water, sometimes it is more fun to just jump right into the stream and then fish for the smaller rocks in the water.

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Thanks to my wife’s excellent preparations and packing, there was also lots of time for indoor playing with cousins.

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In the future, as my grandchildren grow older, there will be other fun adventures for us to enjoy together. Like paddling on the lake…

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…sitting by the waterfall, rocking and reading…

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…fishing on the lake, making a craft at the craft center or just going for long hikes.

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Last year as I drove through the near-century old Montreat gate, it was with excited anticipation of this trip in 2016 that consoled my leaving this special place.

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Sadly, our exit through the gate this year was preemptively marred by tragedy when a moving truck failed to heed the low clearance warning sign and disemboweled one side of the gate.

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For my family alone, four different generations have ventured through this gate into the wonderland that Montreat is. While it is painful to see the gate this way, it is hard to believe that this is only the first time this has ever happened. Hopefully, the gate will be built back just the way it was to greet us on our next visit to this special place.

 

Selling Ladies Shoes

In some of my previous posts, I mentioned the fact that in high school and college I worked part-time selling ladies shoes at a local department store—Goldsmith’s (now Macy’s). But two recent events got me to thinking more about this time long ago, one conscious and one subconscious.

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Over the 2015 Christmas break; I went to a picture-framing store to frame some photos of Amsterdam for our midtown condo. The woman who helped me looked familiar to me but I just assumed it was because she had helped me in the past, as this is the same place I always go to get things framed since my daughter worked there in high school. As we completed the transaction and I gave her my name, she commented that she had worked with someone by that name at Goldsmith’s a number of years ago. I admitted that I too had worked there and through our conversation came to the realization that we had worked together there—over 40 years ago.

When I came back a week later to assemble my photos with the frames, we began to reminisce about the people we worked with and some of the things that went on there. Many of the things we talked about I had not literally thought about in 40 years. It was fun to think back to our youth in those days.

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Then in February this year, I woke up one morning out of a dream where my wife and I were at Goldsmith’s. We had been Christmas shopping and we were going to spend the night at the hotel that was a part of the store (obviously the store did not have a hotel associated with it but it is funny how our mind connects things in dreams). As I lay awake that morning, I began to again think back over my memories of that period of my life and how it all got started.

In 1972, my oldest sister was a department manger at Goldsmith’s and through her connections I was able to get a part-time job for the Christmas holiday season that year. I worked in the men’s department and I recall it was nice making the extra money since my only previous jobs had been delivering newspapers and cutting the grass at my dad’s church with a high school friend of mine. Unfortunately, the Goldsmith’s job ended sometime after the holidays.

In the spring of 1973 (I seem to recall having been encouraged by my mom), I inquired with my sister if there might be another job for me. Part of my desire was the recognition that through this type of job, I would be able to buy my first car. She said she would check and get back to me.

Once my sister contacted me, she said that they didn’t have any openings in the men’s department but they did have an opening in the ladies shoe department. Although I knew nothing about ladies shoes, I went in for the interview—my first ever. I can still picture the manager’s face (and name) and even some of the questions he asked me. I don’t know if he viewed the interview as simply a formality as with my sister’s connections I would be hired no matter what because some of the questions he asked didn’t seem to have anything to do with selling.   But thankfully he didn’t ask me any questions about ladies shoes even though my mother had tried to help prep me by at least describing the different types of ladies shoes prior to the interview. I was hired on the spot at $1.80 per hour.

It is sometimes amazing what things we remember. I can even recall my employee number, 3479, that I had to key into the cash register each time I made a sale (we worked on commission). Sometime after starting, I became what was known as a “blue pencil”—a prestigious recognition that visibly meant that my name was spelled out on my nametag with a blue plastic strip rather than black. One of the responsibilities of a blue pencil was that they had to verify proper identification had been written down on a check being taken for a purchase by a regular salesperson (still back in the day when people actually wrote checks).

This job was where as just a teenager, I made my first work friends.

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I can recall department softball games and various parties. Interestingly, my oldest sister’s mother-in-law also worked in the ladies show department and I’m sure she watched out for me in those early days as well.

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And I can remember a game we used to play when we went on break. We were fortunate to have a set of stairs in the back of our stockroom where the boxes of shoes were stored that led directly to the downstairs employees break room (this was important so we could go on break as a group of three or four without one of us being caught by a customer as we tried to step off the sales floor). At that time, Coca-Colas were sold in 10 oz. tapered glass bottles out of the Coke machine. On the bottom of the bottle, the city of the bottler that had originally sold that bottle was embossed in the glass. Our game was whoever got the bottle from the furthest away city would win (it might have been a dollar from each loser). Whenever we encountered two cities which based on our knowledge we didn’t know which was farther, we would call up AAA or Grey Hound Bus and ask them which city was farther from Memphis in order to declare the winner (remember this was long before PCs, the Internet, and smart phones).

Over my time working there, I recall seeing some pretty wild looking shoe styles (I thought wedge heels were hideous at first but they proved very popular). I remember when we would unload “hampers” of new shoes; it was always fun to open the first box to get a glimpse of the new style. Then we would have to shelve them by size on a row matching that style shoe (pump, sandal, etc.) where we still had empty shelf space (As the sizes sold for a particular style, one task we would have was to “tighten up” the boxes freeing up empty space at the end of the row. No one wanted to do this, as we earned no commission doing that task.)

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At Christmas time, we would get in a large number of house shoes, which were always popular Christmas presents. I recall working one Christmas Eve when a gentleman came in just before closing to buy his elderly grandmother a pair for Christmas. After striking out on several different styles and any sizes even close to his grandmother’s smallish size 7, he picked up one style and said what size do you have in this. I went back and found we only one pair left, a size 10. When I relayed this to the gentleman, he surprisingly said he would take it. He explained she was going to return it anyway.

Prior to closing at 9:30 PM, it was also the Blue Pencils job to close the register and take all the extra cash and checks down to the credit office. We would have to count out all the cash and leave $50 in in the register in some predefined denominations for the start of the next sales day. Then it was out the employee door since all the other doors would have been locked.

Over my five-year tenure at Goldsmith’s, a time I grew from being a teenager to a 20 something, I don’t ever recall dreading to go to work; maybe I did but I just don’t recall. It was certainly a learning experience and one that helped someone like me who was a strong introvert to become more extraverted. But by far, the greatest experience I had there was one I have previously relayed, as this is where I met the woman that became my wife.

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So it is with fond memories that I think back over this time. I’m sure I have other memories hidden away that may come to the forefront of my thoughts based on some future prompting. Because you just never know where that may come from.

♫ New York, New York ♫ – 2nd Stanza

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Picking up my complimentary audio tour, I went to the designated spot in the luggage room, punched in 1 on the device, and was greeted with a special announcement indulging my patience. Turns out in October 2012, Ellis Island and Liberty Island both took direct hits from Hurricane Sandy, wiping out their infrastructure. While the building itself suffered only marginal damage, the complete loss of critical climate control meant that many valuable artifacts had to be relocated to protect them until a proper environment could be restored. But in spite of this, it was still an amazing tour.

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Everyone has seen images of hordes of people huddled inside the building but walking the very floors that millions of immigrants shuffled across over a hundred years ago fills you with tremendous emotions and gives you chills. It is truly awe inspiring to learn the bravery that these people had packing their few possessions into a suitcase, enduring weeks at sea, then once arriving, being herded like cattle through medical examinations and being asked multiple questions by people in uniforms, all when the immigrants didn’t even speak English or fully understand what would be required to enter the US (and also to many of them, people in uniforms meant danger), all in this very large hall, described by newcomers as great as an airplane hanger.

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Multiple times I was on the verge of tears. The exhibits and the audio tour tell what for many was a harrowing experience, but one that makes me proud of my own ancestors who endured this grueling process to leave their homeland—the life they were familiar with—and embark on a journey of unknown outcome. With this new appreciation for what it took, I have to say thank you to my forebears.

Before I realized it, I had spent over two and a half hours wandering the vast building, a tour I hadn’t even originally planned but only took because it was a part of the ticket. I anxiously boarded the ferry again for what had been my original purpose and as we neared Liberty Island,

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gleefully snapped this shot of me with Lady Liberty in the background.

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By the time I disembarked, the weather had worsened. Here, the ravages of Hurricane Sandy were even more visible as temporary buildings and tents were in place.  And within these tents, I had to endure yet another airport-like security screening before entering the base of the Statue.

Following the line through for pedestal and crown ticket holders, I then came to a long line awaiting the elevator but a short line to the stairs. Being an avid Fitbitter, I took the shorter line for the stairs. I don’t know how many steps I ascended (it was estimated to be a 5 minute climb) but at the top I was met with a small space and two doors to the outside balcony, through which I could see it was still raining.

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It was my Eiffel Tower experience all over again where it had been raining so hard, we couldn’t even leave the hot and humid interior of the structure for a photo without getting drenched (ironic connection to this rainy Liberty experience, the interior support structure for the Lady was also built by Gustave Eiffel). I did manage to brave the rain long enough to get a photo of lower Manhattan with the Freedom Tower shrouded in clouds.

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But lacking a crown ticket, this was as far as I could go and there was nothing left to do but go back down the stairs. It was another anticlimactic experience. When I reached the bottom, I just couldn’t believe that was it. After all these years of never visiting the Statue of Liberty, it just felt like a huge letdown. Before I went through the secure exit, I decided to go back inside the base to see if I had missed anything. Turns out I had. A lot.

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I took another look at the torch that I had rushed past on my way to the queue line for the pedestal ticket holders. I learned that this was the actual torch that Bartholdi had originally installed in Lady Liberty’s outstretched arm in 1886. It had been modified in the early 1890s to include the glass panels so that it could be lit internally but it was impossible to keep rainwater from getting into the interior of the statue and so was replaced in 1986 with the current torch topped with a gilded flame. It made me feel that even though I couldn’t go to the crown and see the torch, I had a much better view of the torch than I could even get from the crown.

After this wonderful discovery, I ascended a set of stairs to the left of the ones I had entered to walk up the pedestal and found an entire museum I didn’t know existed within the base.

There was a full size replica of Liberty’s face, with a striking resemblance to Bartholdi’s mother…

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…and Liberty’s left foot.

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There was a display of one of the toes that showed the iron support bars attached inside the copper forms…

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…and some of the actual iron bars from inside the statue that had been removed and replaced with steel bars during the 1980’s restoration.

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There was also a display that showed what the Eiffel support structure looked like inside the statue…

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…and photos of portions of the statue that were displayed in Philadelphia and New York when Bartholdi was trying to gain US acceptance of the statue and a commitment to fund the building of the pedestal.

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The displays were intriguing to me and gave me tangible evidence of the things that I had read in the book. Suddenly I didn’t feel so let down.  But before I left, I still wanted to see the statue as close up as I could get from the outdoor walkway.

Only problem was the driving wind and rain kept inverting my umbrella and kiting my iPhone making it impossible to get a photo. But I kept trying to take shot after shot until finally holding my umbrella at almost a 90 degree angle with the ground, I got a photo with the right amount of light that satisfied me.

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I felt more complete and accomplished as the rain and wind pushed me back towards the dock where I would catch the return ferry to New Jersey.

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As I settled into my warm seat on the ferry ride back, I discovered that I had spent over 5 hours at the two parks and by the time I had made it back to my car, it was almost 2 PM. I had completely blown my schedule and I still hadn’t even had any lunch. While walking back to the car in the rain, I had had but one thought—seeking comfort. Warming up and drying out in the car, that comfort soon crystallized with clarity—a brewpub. Since I no longer had time to drive to the train station, ride the train to New York, visit the MOMA and then get back to the airport in time to return the rental car and catch my ride back to the hotel, I just thought of cold beer and hot food in a warm and dry restaurant.

I pulled up Yelp and did a quick search. I found one close by but after parking and entering, realized it was a college-dive kind of place. I found another that led me down to the water’s front. Fortunately, I was able to find a parking spot and when I walked in, I knew this was the spot. Not only did I have a superb sandwich and great micro-brewed IPA, I had a tremendous view.

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So even though I wasn’t technically “in” New York, I was enjoying a great view of New York. Out of the rain and in a warm environment enjoying a tasty beer. In spite of my less than fulfilled plans, it was a most enjoyable day. Maybe not the kind ole Frankie sang about all those years ago, but a great day all the same.