Fortress America


      There was an interesting story in the news a few days ago concerning a woman from one of the Scandinavian countries of Europe who recently visited New York City.  On one particular day while visiting friends in the city, she and her colleagues decided to pop into a local restaurant for lunch.  The Scandinavian visitor was also pushing a baby carriage holding her sleeping baby.  As the party entered the restaurant, the woman parked her baby outside the entrance and left her there as they entered the building.

    In short order, someone noticed the unattended child and called police, who promptly tracked down the errant mother and arrested her on child endangerment grounds.  The mother did not understand the gravity of the situation and offered in her defense that in her country it was not uncommon on pleasant days for parents to leave small children in carriers on the outside of business establishments while shopping.  The fact that in New York City such an act would constitute a grave danger for the child was incomprehensible to a mother who came from a country where crime is rare, and guns are seldom seen.

    Flashback to the 1950s:  When I was a child, Mom would haul us children along with her while she did her shopping, and it was not uncommon for her to leave us kids in the car while she bounced from store to store.  We were welcome to accompany her, but we looked at shopping as boring and preferred to sit in the car and play games….and we sat in a car with the doors unlocked and the windows down.

    As a teenager attending school and heavily involved in the dating game and Friday night activities, I attempted to impress the girls by driving an older 1954 Mercury.  In those days cars had small vent windows on each front door that could be opened while driving to let in fresh air (no AC back then.)  Each vent window had a latch so that it could be secured when parked.  The latch on my left door vent was broken, which meant that anyone could swing open the vent window, reach in, and open the door.  That was no problem anyway because I never locked my car.  For the four years I owned that car, it was never locked…and it never occurred to me to be concerned.

    In my eighteen years of living at home until I married and moved away, I do not ever remember my parents’ home being locked.  I don’t even remember seeing a key to a door of the home.  The concept of danger from human predators was not considered; perhaps we were all naïve.  My dad had as "home defense" an old 22 caliber rifle that was up somewhere in a closet, but it was mainly used to take care of any varmints that invaded our chicken house and the occasional possibly-rabid dog.

    As Shirley and I embarked on our lives together, we graduated to cars, apartments, and houses which could be locked, but even then, locking up our goods was considered more of “just a good idea” rather that preventive measures against perceived threats from the outside.  Over the years we traveled around the United States blithely unaware and unconcerned about any nearby danger.  In 1966 she and I were caught in the wee hours of the morning at 2:00 a.m. miles away from our hotel in Paris, France, when the subway abruptly shut down.  We walked down dark, narrow streets and back alleys to get to our hotel, never considering the possibility of harm befalling us.  We were young, and it was an adventure.  Flying to Europe and returning was a matter of purchasing a ticket, walking to the plane, and boarding.  No security.

    In the early 1970s I was a fledgling real estate salesman in Wyoming.   I was a home listing machine and could get a home seller's signature on the dotted line.  I was astounded to see how many homes I listed for sale when, at the time of listing, I would ask the homeowner for a set of keys for the lock box, and he would reply, “We don’t have any.”  Neighbors were real neighbors and there was no need for keys; the area was secure.  During this time my brother-in-law and I were avid hunters.  We had an old Jeep four-wheel drive pickup (Read my blog: "Hunting in a Jeep.")  There was a rifle rack in the back window, and there we hung our rifles...whether it was hunting season or not.  That Jeep could not be locked, either.
    In this new year of 2018, my family’s home is now protected with sensors, radar, and video, all of which I can access at any time, anywhere from my cell phone.  Lights are always on outside the house at night so that a clear view is afforded.  The National Rifle Association has convinced me and millions of other nervous Americans that I need “home defense” weapons.  The answers to guns in the NRA’s mind is, naturally, more guns.  Not only that, but with the fear of harm at every human encounter, it is now legal to carry a weapon on your person, so I am now dutifully equipped with a Concealed Handgun License and a .380 semi-automatic.  But strangely enough, I don’t feel any safer.

    My automobiles are equipped with theft deterrents and alarms, along with dash cams with video capabilities which automatically begin filming if anyone gets near the cars.   Even at that, my cars are not at the cutting edge of technology.  Theft deterrent systems can now notify you if suspicious sorts get around your car or home and can even warn them away with a growly voice if they’re getting too close.

    It is now illegal to leave your small children unattended in an automobile…even with the doors locked and windows up.  Of course, here in Texas, that scenario of windows up creates a dangerous situation anyway due to rapid heating of the car’s interior, so what may start out as a simple misdemeanor infraction could escalate to a felonious child endangerment charge rapidly.

    From the businesses and residences of years ago with little concern for locked doors, we now have homes which monitor the exterior and interior with video and electronics constantly and businesses which are heavily fortified and monitored with cameras in every corner.  Employees work behind cages and bulletproof glass, and police can be summoned with just the push of a button.  As this was being written, the Super Bowl in Minnesota was only one day away, and I was struck while watching the evening news by the extent of the security safeguards that were being undertaken for this annual event.  Millions of dollars and thousands of hours of manpower were expended to protect the spectators from…two…three...perhaps four people who may have wished to do harm to the event.  The first aircraft hijacking in 1974 changed the air transportation industry and forced it to spend in the ensuing years billions of dollars on security…the expense of which has all been passed down for you and me, the travelers, to pay.

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a consortium of the top 34 industrialized countries in the world.  Each year for the past thirty years or so, it has polled citizens of each country and rated their “happiness.”  Yes, there really is a published “happiness index” which reflects the measure of contentment in each country.  (Google "happiness index.")  In 2007 the United States ranked third out of the group, but in 2017 the U.S. slipped to seventeenth. Mass shootings and fears of terrorism have created feelings of unease in the American populace, and each terrible act drives Americans to do the only thing they know to do to further safety…buy more guns.  It is a never-ending circle.

    Unfortunately, our society is not just suffering from a threat of personal harm, but the social pot is also continually being stirred by strident voices pitting race against race, Republican against Democrat, male against female, urban against rural, young against old.  Somehow, we have forgotten that democracy is built on compromise and consensus.  I am not against President Donald Trump; many of the social and governmental stances he proposes I agree with, but his personal actions reflect the attitude of the general citizenry…uncompromising, abrasive, rude, and, yes, perhaps dangerous.

    What does our country need to return to the days of relative harmony?  We can say our country needs to return to God and Christianity, but even the Scriptures themselves state that in the last days “evil men shall wax worse and worse, deceiving many, and being deceived.”  Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we will be able create as much peace and tranquility within our own circle of family and friends as possible, and in doing so, survive the social hurricane we are experiencing at this time.


A New Year Through the Eyes of a Senior Citizen

  By Bob Downing                                                

Three score and ten” the Scriptures do say
Are the years of our lives; we then “fly away.” *
An endless time…through the eyes of the young…
Becomes hauntingly brief when life’s song is near sung.

The horizons once faced are now memories long past.
The victories and triumphs so cherished did not last.
The failures, the heartaches, the losses, and schemes
Of a life poorly spent bring nights’ tortured dreams.

The curtains of our minds in the dark of the night
Draw open to reveal a troubling sight…
Unlimited youth with its promise and fun
Has vanished away like the dew in the sun.

The desires, the passions, the zest for the day
Are like snowflakes that fall and soon melt away.
The finish, once distant, looms alarmingly near
And the memories of life become ever so dear.

The goals, once assumed, are now elusively caught,
And the expression of love becomes merely a thought. 
Deeds once accomplished with hardly a strain
Are now deeds but dreamed and seldom without pain.

But continue we must, and through effort and strength
The days of our lives may be increased in length.*
With happiness and love and good deeds to lend
Three score and ten” could be when we begin.

(*Psalm 90:10: ":The days of our years are threescore and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their
strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.")

Cruise, 2017






      The old guys who normally gather at Denny’s on FM 1960 every Friday were in their rightful places when the subject eventually slid around to ocean cruises.  Since it had been a little over two years since Shirley and I had sailed to Key West and the Bahamas with the Creel bunch, I had been thinking about scheduling another trip to give us a chance to get out of town and relax a bit.  Other than a trip to my sister’s home in Missouri, we haven’t done much traveling lately, so it was time to go somewhere.  If I were given a choice of where to go, Hawaii would  always be my first choice.  However, I have found that the older we get, there is another factor we consider when considering a vacation trip: the hassle factor.  To go to Hawaii requires air travel (with all the wonderful hazards of airports, security checks, and flight delays,) hotel/motel/condo rentals, car rentals, arrangements for food, and planning for any entertainment.  In a word, a Hawaiian trip rates very high on the hassle factor scale.
    Counter the effort of planning a Hawaiian trip with the ease of a cruise: you walk onto a boat, and for a week you do not have to do anything but enjoy.  No planning…. eat when you want and what you want, do everything or do nothing.  Your time and your planning are own.   Five years ago, the idea of a cruise seemed remote and not necessarily attractive.  Why would I want to be trapped on a boat for a week?  I have learned the attractiveness of a cruise: ease of  planning (buy the package) and ease of scheduling (do what you want when you want.)
    Anyway, at Denny’s on a Friday in July, Jerry Stewart, a good friend who also happens to be a cruise expert having enjoyed over twenty cruises in recent years, mentioned that he and his lovely wife, Bobbie, had decided to take a cruise in September.  I mentioned that Shirley and I had been considering the same idea, and he made the mistake of saying, “You all ought to go with us.”  Within 48 hours, Shirley and I were scheduled for the same Carnival Breeze cruise out of Galveston on September 10-17 going to Jamaica, the Caymen Islands, and Cozumel.

Sunday, September 10, 2017,  Departure from Galveston

      We had agreed to take our car to Galveston, picking up Jerry and Bobbie along the way, so about 10:00 a.m. we slipped into the Stewart driveway.  Within a matter of seconds (since they were waiting on their porch) we were back on IH45 headed south to the Galveston docks.  Arriving at the parking area just across the street from the hulking Carnival Breese, a 1,000 foot behemoth of a boat as tall as a 14 story building, we begin probably the most stressful event in the life of a cruise trip: the checking in process.  One has to consider that in a matter of three hours or so, Carnival has to check in 4,100 passengers, each one loaded with luggage, and all have to walk through a single door into the ship.  It all begins with parking about a quarter mile away from the ship.  You unload your luggage and walk to a gathering area where eventually a 15 passenger bus comes by and picks up you and your luggage and hauls you to the terminal.  There you unload, and horse your luggage to the nearest baggage check in person.  He will load your luggage onto the cart and then say, “Go down there to the end of the line for check in,” and point to the end of a line seemingly a quarter mile away.  You then walk down to join the long line of excited travelers waiting impatiently to get on board and start having fun.  Since these are international cruises, the official check in begins with showing your loading pass (downloaded from your computer), then showing your picture identification (passport), and then, just like the airlines, go through a security checkpoint with x-ray and metal detection.
     Going through security, I had to remove my belt just like at the airlines, but that didn’t mean that security was tight…when I walked through the metal detector, it started buzzing because of my metal hip.  I was prepared to explain the situation, but no one ever questioned me or raised a head when the alarm went off…so I kept walking.  All the luggage went through the x-ray, but the guy looking at the luggage appeared more bored than anything else, and the conveyer belt never slowed down.  
    Next came the registration and room confirmation.  We had our pictures taken (they took a photo of our passport photo), and were told to proceed upstairs to the next level for boarding.  There we sat for several minutes until someone told us to begin boarding by going “that way.”  We followed the crowd walking down a hall which turned into an escalating walkway which zigzagged back and forth going ever higher until we were at the same level as the entryway to the Carnival Breeze. It was a hard climb for Shirley with her uncooperative back and knee.  She had brought her cane, but it wasn’t much help, I think.  We walked across a gangplank onto the ship to a chorus of “Welcome aboard!” greetings and into a room with deafening music and many chairs.  It was the Atrium of the Breeze, an open area extending from the third deck to the twelfth. We sat down to rest after the hour long boarding process.  Eventually we were told that our staterooms would not be available until 1:30, so we decided to go up to deck ten to the Lido Buffet and have lunch. 
    The last couple of years I have been on a fairly stringent diet.  I wear a Fitbit to keep track of my steps and monitor my calorie intake, but I left my Fitbit at home for this trip because I knew I would never stay within my guidelines.  I weighed the morning before we left, and I calculated I would gain a few pounds this week, but after getting back home, I’ll just have to go back to my normal regimentation and hopefully the excess will eventually go away.  That’s the plan, anyway. 
    So we had lunch in the Lido and relaxed a bit until nearly 2:00 p.m.  In the meantime, Jerry went to see the maitre’d in the main restaurant to see if he could sweet talk him/her into a reserved table for us.  At that moment we had “open dining,” which meant that we could go anytime we wanted for the evening meal, but it was first come, first served.  With “early dining,” you have a reserved time and even a reserved table every evening, so all you had to do is walk in and have a seat.  Jerry came back saying that he would know sometime tomorrow.   Anyway, we headed to our rooms.  We couples were four rooms apart: we were in stateroom 6279, and Bobbie and Jerry were in 6289.  We were neighbors.  
     Our luggage still hadn’t arrived to our rooms yet, so we took brief naps, since we were a little tired from the check in ordeal.  Our stateroom was the standard balcony stateroom.  We were on deck 6, the starboard side, so we could look over the city of Galveston while we waited to shove off from the dock.  Of course, before all this went down, we had to go through the obligatory emergency drill and preparation, which involved going to our designated lifeboat boarding area and reviewing the instructions for putting on a life jacket, etc. The term “calm and orderly evacuation” was used several times, but I really doubt that in a truly emergency situation there would be very much done in a “calm and orderly” fashion.  Just ask the folks on the Titanic.  
    Shortly after the training ended, we made our way back to our stateroom just in time to see that we were slowly moving away from the Galveston dock and easing our way toward the Houston Ship Channel.  Thirty minutes or so later we passed the last point of the south jetty of the channel.  I saw the spot where I caught my last 22-pound bull red when we church guys chartered a fishing expedition a few years ago.  And out to sea (or gulf) we went.

 
   About 6:30 I called Jerry, and we all made our way to the Sapphire Restaurant on decks three and four (the restaurant has two levels,) where Jerry and I got into a…um…discussion about early dining (reserved) and open dining (unreserved.)  I said something about that even if we got the early dining like he wanted, we may be in the same restaurant, just the upper level. I knew this because it said so on our Carnival app which I downloaded after we got on board.  Jerry said that was impossible because the only place for reserved seating was in the stern of the boat in the Blush Restaurant (can you believe that name?).  I (calmly) showed him the app, and he said he didn’t care what the app said; he knew it wasn’t right. He then said that since it was a sure thing and so it wouldn’t be like gambling,(!) he would bet me $5.00 he was right.  I graciously accepted, and then Jerry sealed his own fate by saying, “Let’s ask our waiter.”  He did.  I was right.  Justice had prevailed.  Since he is the head usher in our church and a man of impeccable reputation, I preserved his sterling image by not collecting my winnings and instead graciously forgave him his debt.  I may not let him forget it, though.
    In the spirit of tradition, I ordered my usual shrimp cocktail, flatiron steak, and melting chocolate cake.  It was…okay.  The cocktail consisted of five small shrimp, the steak was a little tough and, and the chocolate cake was somehow not as awe-inspiring as what I remembered.  The service was good, but the food was average at best.  Maybe it was just the first meal, and things will get better.  Anyway, by the time we finished we were all pretty well done for from the events of the day, so we said our good nights and headed to our rooms.  We finished putting away our clothing from our luggage and packed it in for the night.

Monday, September 11, 2017,  Sea Day #1

    As I’ve already mentioned, the Atrium of the Breeze is the open area extending from the third deck all the way to the twelfth deck. It glitters with glass elevators, flashy decorations, and overlooking balconies on each deck.  On the bottom (third) level (where we entered yesterday) is the entertainment area with open bar and loud music.  It’s a place to make boisterous merriment, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I mention this to get to the point that I learned that noise can come from not only your next-door neighbor, but from three decks down as well.  Our stateroom was just off the elevators on the sixth deck, and it was like we were sitting on one of the bar stools on the third deck.  The sounds of heavy music, laughter, yelling, and glasses tinkling pervaded our room until about midnight.  Fortunately it didn’t bother me.  Thanks to the magic of iPods and ear buds, I listened serenely to beautiful music and drifted off to sleep.  It was only between songs that I heard the dull rumblings of the invading racket.  Well, at least it always ended about midnight, and toward the end of the week they actually began having adult music performed, such as a string trio which played very serene music. It was okay.
    What was more troublesome were the heavy seas and headwinds we began to encounter during the night.  It’s hard to imagine how a ship of this size could squeak and groan as much as the Breeze did, but that was the case.  From the balcony came the sounds of whistling wind, clanging doors, and rattling whatevers.  By the time we awoke, the captain was on the intercom telling us we were feeling the after-effects of Hurricane Irma which was in the process of slamming into Florida.  As we headed up to deck ten for breakfast with the Stewarts, people everywhere were giving good impressions of a colony of drunks after a long night’s binge.  It took a little concentration to stand somewhat respectably and wait for the elevator, and as we walked I held Shirley’s hand, partly to help her but also to steady myself.
    After a good breakfast, we decided to visit the shops on the fifth deck.  On the port side of the shopping area are all the name brand shops with everything at full list price, so watches that sell at your local jeweler for $250 you can buy here for $399.  On the starboard side of the ship are the $10 tables (buy four, get the fourth one free.)  My kind of shopping.  The tee shirts and souvenirs are still too expensive, but from experience, those items tend to drop in price later in the cruise, so the first day out is not the best time to shop.
    Amazingly, when we returned to our stateroom we found a note under our door telling us that we had received Early (reserved) Dining.  We will be dining in the Blush Restaurant, third deck, at 6:00 p.m. and our table number is 549.  So we are set for evening dining. 
We also met our first of a series of little towel creatures the steward placed in our room every day.  After a couple of hours of writing on this report, I was told by Shirley that she wanted to go wandering around, so I shut down the computer (my old Sony VAIO laptop from 1998…about all it’s good for is Word writing.) and we headed down to deck three to see what’s to see.  Besides the two major restaurants, on deck three is the Ovation Theater where a hot bingo game was going on.  It was too late for us to join, so we moved up a notch to deck four.  Deck four is the photo gallery where you can pose in front of a myriad of backdrops with your current companion or buy the photos that the wandering photographers take of you during your cruise. Having already experience deck five, we skipped up to deck eleven, which basically surrounds the pool on deck ten along with its large outdoor video screen where evening movies and last night’s Monday Night football game with the Cowboys was shown.  I don’t even know who won as of this writing.  We decided to walk to the back…I mean stern…of the ship where we marveled at the wake the ship was leaving.  It was quieter there, since there was no loud music going on, but it was awash with jacuzzies, hot tubs, mini pools with mostly young people soaking and interacting.  I can only say that somewhere there should be an international law forbidding some…um…weight-challenged…people from wearing what passes for a bathing suit.  For every person who looked semi-acceptable in a bathing suit, there were ten poor souls who really needed to put on a robe.  Other than a great view of the ocean, there wasn’t much to appeal to the mature adult at the stern of this ship, so we moved on. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth decks of the ship are partial, forward decks where all the outdoor youth activities take place.  No interest to us…we skipped. Back to the stateroom.

    After relaxing a bit more, around 4:45 we began preparing for our new dining experience at the Blush Restaurant.  We sailed by the Stewart stateroom (four rooms away), picked them up, and headed for the Blush Restaurant on the third level.  Sure enough, although there was a line of people trying to get in, we passed them all up and walked to our reserved table and met our dining companions.  The tables were all set for eight souls, so we were curious who we would meet.  Jerry was hopeful it wasn’t a quartet of Black Panthers or some other group who felt they had been downtrodden and were out for retribution.  Fortunately, with the wisdom of the maitre’d evident, we were grouped with souls of like persuasion and equivalent age bracket, so we all got along famously.  
    Having been disappointed with the shrimp cocktail and flat iron steak from last night, I ordered as an appetizer fried oysters and as an entrée a ribeye steak with baked potato.  When the appetizer arrived, on the plate were TWO fried oysters…that’s it.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Only two oysters?  Mental note: tomorrow night, do not order the shrimp cocktail or oysters.  I was feeling a little down, to say the least.  However, when the ribeye arrived, I felt better.  Compared to the steak last night, it was at least flavorful and tender, and the baked potato was well dressed and tasty.  We were well served with bread, tea, and coffee.  I decided to give the melting chocolate dessert one more chance before I marked it off the list, and I’m glad I did.  This time it was very flavorful chocolate, hot, with two scoops of ice cream.  It was like how I remembered, so at least with this dinner I got two “satisfies” out of three.  Progress was being made.  Shortly before 8:00, we headed back to the stateroom, pleasantly full and ready to relax.  We were thankful that as we had sailed further south, the seas had started to quieten a bit, resulting in the ship pitching and yawing less, which made walking less of a challenge.  



Tuesday, September 12, 2017,  Sea Day #2


    Well, nothing like being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by a phone call from the Guest Services department saying that we had an emergency message from Kimberly Downing.  I asked him to give us the message, and he said we would have to come to Guest Services to receive it…which raised the level of concern even higher.  We dressed in record time and imagined every terrible scenario that could have taken place as we made our way to the third deck and the service desk.  The desk person identified us and using his cell phone, dialed a code and then handed me the phone.  On the other end was our beloved daughter, Kim.  
     Kim cut to the chase immediately and said, “First of all, everyone in our family is OK.”   That was good news, but then I waited for the other shoe to drop.  She told me Buddy had passed out for some reason and fell, resulting in serious facial lacerations.  There was concern originally about possible cranial damage or heart problems, but the ensuing tests were all negative.  Apparently, this event took place on Sunday. Because of the original fear of brain damage or aneurysm, he was being kept in an unconscious, cooled-down state until a conclusion from the tests could be reached.  As of this writing, he is being prepped to regain consciousness in the next 24 hours.  We closed our conversation with Kim suggesting that we buy the internet package that Carnival offered to allow us to stay in contact. 
     I told the desk person that I wanted to purchase the internet plan, and I was surprised when he graciously offer to give us for no charge their best plan to allow us to keep in touch with the family back home..  Carnival made a lifelong friend out of me.  Within a few minutes I was receiving messages, and I sent a message to Jeannie.  She gave further details about Buddy’s fall and the stress of the last two days.  I will not retell the story on these pages, but it was clear that Buddy had a road to recovery that will take a while.  Fortunately, he has a large, strong family around him to offer all the support he will be needing.  
     By this time it was 7:30, so I called Jerry.  He had told me to call him whatever time I got up, but I don’t think he was expecting a call at 7:30 because he was still in bed.  Anyway, we and wives met a few minutes later at the Lido Restaurant and enjoyed a breakfast.  It was a lighter breakfast, since I had exceeded my daily capacity for food in the last couple of days.  I was a little uncomfortable trying to sleep last night due to my overindulgence at dinner last night, so I decided to try to control the eating a bit more today.  Coffee, roll, fruit…that was breakfast.  
     Afterward, Jerry and Bobbie headed off to some sort of trivia game, and we decided to try our hand at Bingo.  On our previous cruise we had played and had a good outcome, so the hook had already been set.  Down to deck three to the Ovation Room, and forty-five minutes later we left with a wonderful experience… but no winnings.  Oh, well, it had entertainment value.


     Back to the room.  The seas had really settled and we were actually cruising normally without having to hang onto railings, so maybe our unsteady sailing was over.  As I wrote this we had just passed the western tip of Cuba and were within a day’s distance from our first stop, Montego Bay, Jamaica.  We looked  forward to a tour of a city we have never visited.

    Around 12:30 we headed down to a new experience…eating at Guy’s Pig and Anchor Barbeque on deck five.  Turned out to be amazing barbeque.  While we sat on the outside deck and as we were getting ready to eat, we ran through a bit of a rain squall, so we escaped indoors where we discovered a coffee bar with Starbucks coffee.  After finishing off the barbeque, I got us a couple of coffees and the biggest slice of carrot cake I’ve ever seen.  It was loaded with icing, which Shirley doesn’t care for, so I happily took care of her rejected icing. (Sigh) So much food…so little time.


   Around 1:30, Shirley and I went to the Ovation Theater where a game of Clue was commencing.  This Clue game involved live characters, a murdered person, and an inspector who needed the audience’s help in solving the crime based on clues.  Sort of a humanized version of the old board game. Each “suspect” was questioned, and we listened to their alibis.  In the next couple of days, additional clues will be posted around the ship, and come Saturday, the person who guesses correctly who committed the crime, with what instrument, and where has the potential of winning $2,000.00.  Not too sure we’ll get involved, but watching the kickoff of the game was entertaining.

    About 3:15 I went to the tenth deck to listen to a guy play a guitar.  I am sure I have seen him on previous cruises because he sort of stands out amongst the herd.  He was from Fiji, went by the name Jerry and could sing any kind of rock and roll or country with an exact imitation of the voice of the original singer of each song.  The singing was pretty amazing…it’s not often you see an Asian from Fiji singing a Merle Haggard song as well as Merle himself, but it was his guitar skills that were amazing.  He played a hollow body cutaway folk style electrified guitar with a skill and entertainment quotient far higher than nearly any other guitarist I’ve ever heard.  It was totally entertaining for an hour, and the crowd got into it and enjoyed every minute. Near the end of his performance, he played an instrumental of “America, the Beautiful” that was a work of musical art.
    Back to the stateroom for an hour or so of rest, then at 5:55, we trotted by the Stewart homestead, and we all made our way back to the Blush Restaurant for our reserved table dining experience.  I enjoyed escargot in garlic butter, a Caesar salad, and grilled pork chop.  The pork chop was not as impressive as Perry’s massive pork chop, but it was good.  In fact, this was probably the best meal I’ve had so far, especially since it was topped off with (what else?) a melting chocolate cake with ice cream...although the chocolate cake wasn’t as good as last night.  Three nights of chocolate cake…I may have to try something different tomorrow night.
    By this time, we had gotten the message that Buddy was still holding his own and showing more awareness of his surroundings, so our prayers continue with him, Jeannie, and the family.  We have also received three calls from Guest Services asking if everything was under control back home, and did we need any additional help from Carnival.  Even though I answered “no” to the questions, we were told that if we needed to get off the boat in Galveston quickly after we arrived on Sunday, just to let them know and we would be allowed to get off first.  Pretty impressive.  Of course, I told Jerry of Carnival’s offer, and that we were considering taking advantage of the quick exit and that he and Bobbie may have to find their own way home.  But after a minute or so, I told him we would graciously wait for them.
 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017, Jamaica



Hello, Jamaica!


  
We arrived in Jamaica this morning, but our tour did not begin until 11:30, so we had time for a more leisurely breakfast in the Lido Restaurant.  We decided to head on down to deck “O” for disembarkation and maybe do a little shopping or at least snooping around the stores before we headed out on the tour.  When we got to the tour gathering area, however, we were whisked away to the bus, and by 10:45 we were on the road..  Apparently, they had busses leaving every hour or so, and they just loaded up whoever was there and took off on an hourly basis.
    Our tour was “The 10 Best of Montego Bay,” a combination sightseeing and shopping tour.  We learned a lot about Jamaica, but I will not turn this blog into a history or geography lesson.  Suffice it to say we had a very entertaining, knowledgeable tour guide, and an excellent driver.  The excellent driver was critical, because the roads were crowded and narrow with honking cars and people wandering in all directions.  I have never heard such horn honking, not necessarily out of driver anger, but simply to warn the other  drivers that “here I come, ready or not.”  And here we (or they) came.  Spaces between cars were measured in inches, but somehow it all worked, and drivers took charge or yielded as the need arose.
     We drove through the old, narrow part of Montego Bay, very quaint, with its historic buildings, such as the 17th century jail for runaway slaves.  All of this contrasted with the newer parts of Montego Bay, where the celebrities had their villas.  All in all, Jamaica is a beautiful island, larger than I expected (200 miles long, 80 miles wide at its widest) with the type of weather your would expect…sunny and warm year round.
   The tour ended at the hot spot for drinkers…Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.  We did not enter, but the place was jumping.  We got to see some lovely sights…a corn-rowed scraggly dude smoking marijuana and actively hustling it to the tourists…. until he got stopped by the police.  Apparently, he saw them coming because they searched him thoroughly but found no pot, so they let him go with a warning.  Our bus tour guide said he is there every day selling pot and watching for the cops, but that he is a magician when it comes to hiding his stash. And if they can’t find it on his person, he can’t be charged.  The cops also stopped a couple of young…um…ladies who were also apparently selling more personal items, and to listen to them, you would have thought they were on their way to Sunday School.  They weren’t dressed for Sunday School, though.
   The crowning moment of the tour, though, was our 45 minutes spent in the Margaritaville vicinity, the end of which as we were loading, one of our young lady tourists was brought back to the bus stumbling drunk…in 45 minutes, no less.  As we continued our cruise, she began throwing up in a barf bag, conveniently given to her by our tour guide.  Fortunately, the drunk was sitting right in from of the tour guide, and the guide handled it very professionally.  With backup barf bags in one hand and the microphone in the other she continued her comments about the sights we were seeing.  Probably half of the people on the bus were never aware of the unfortunate girl.  The things I just mentioned sound a little negative, but the tour was actually very entertaining and informative.  Naturally the tour ended at the Shoppes at Rose Hall, the place to go when buying Jamaican souvenirs.
    Back to the boat about 4:40, just enough time to rest a little, and then prepare for dinner.  Picked up the Stewarts about 6:00 and we were shortly at our assigned table, ready to eat. Had the usual average steak and sides, and my melting chocolate cake for dessert.  I think that may be the last one.  It was good, but not great, and not near as good as even the one from last night.  Tomorrow night I go into new dessert territory and try something else.
    Afterward, we decided to go to a piano bar on the fifth deck, primarily because next to it was a Starbucks.  We enjoyed good coffee and visited, while the girl singer on the stage tried to channel Patsy Cline.  She had a way to go.
     After this, we had to walk through the casino to get back to the forward part of the ship and our rooms.  Jerry mentioned he had never won anything, and I tried to get him to try his luck.  He had said before the cruise that he was going to bring 100 pennies and if he lost those, he was going to quit.  I told him the penny machines are not really penny machines but you play a quarter, 40 cents or whatever on each pull.  Too rich for his blood, he said.  But then he goaded me to try my luck, so I put in two dollars….and won $42.00 in about 45 seconds.  Jerry could not believe it, and of course I attributed it to clean living…. but I quit while I was ahead.  Anyway, we left with Jerry mumbling about how lucky I was.  I have to admit, I have brought up the subject a couple of times since then.
    Back to our rooms about 9:00 with Grand Cayman Island on the morning horizon.

Thursday, September 14, 2017, Grand Cayman

    Today, Shirley and I had to be in the Ovation Theater at 7:30 for our tour, so we were up early for a quick breakfast, then on our way.  Walking into the theater about 7:10, the guide led us to the elevators, down to deck “O” to be loaded into tenders for the trip to the shore.  Grand Cayman does not have a port for cruise liners, so everyone must take a tender, a smaller ship with a capacity of about 200 persons from the cruise ship to the docks.  We did so, and quickly hooked up with our tour company, the “Amphibious Bus Land and Sea Adventure.”
    We have ridden “ducks” before in Branson and Galveston. Ducks are military surplus amphibious assault vehicles which have been converted to private use by various tour agencies.  This vehicle we were to ride in today looked like a bus except it was equipped for traversing water also.  Much more comfortable than the old ducks, with video cameras, and covered roof, the vehicle was like nothing I had ever seen.  But off we went, first through the (as usual) narrow streets of George Town, and then when the opportunity arose near a boat launching area, driving into the water with a great splash.  The diesel engine fired up, the props begin whirring, and we were on our way into some of the most pristine, clear waters I had ever seen.  We cruised over a couple of shipwrecks, clearly visible on the TV monitors and also by simply looking over the edge.  In a while, we stopped and began throwing bread upon the water, and it created a feeding frenzy of fish as they came from everywhere for the bread morsels.  I got the feeling they had been fed like this before.  The largest fish we saw was a five-foot barracuda, and we saw it as we were driving out of the water near the docks.  The big critter was no more than ten feet away from the shoreline.
    From the water, we motored up the road to the world famous Seven Mile Beach, a strip of white powdery sand with upscale hotels.  We parked at one of them and were given 45 minutes to roam around, but to be honest, there were no shopping areas, only drinking areas, so I went to the beach, took a couple of photos, and Shirley and I stayed in the bus.  About 11:00 Shirley and I caught the tender back to the boat.  We rested for awhile, and then up to Lido for lunch where in a few minutes Bobbie and Jerry showed up.  The early afternoon, I rested.  Shirley went wandering around somewhere, but we both just sort of chilled out for the afternoon.
    Back to the Blush Restaurant (formal, dress up night tonight.) I ordered soup, filet mignon and spare rib with green beans and potatoes, and….no, I did not get a melting chocolate cake…I got some sort of rich chocolate layer cake with a cream sauce.  The filet was good, not awesome, but the dessert was very good.

Friday, September 15, 2017,  Cozumel

    Our tour didn’t start until 1:00 p.m. today, so we had a leisurely breakfast in the Lido from about 9:00-10:00.  The Breeze wasn’t due into Cozumel until 10:00, so about the time we sat down for breakfast, we nudged up against the dock.  I think I like leaving for tours a little later, because the moment the ship touched a dock, the majority of the passengers flooded the elevators to get to deck “O” for disembarkation.  With a later tour time, the mad rush to vacate the premises is over, and we could take a civilized process to exit the boat.
    We did so about 12:15, walking down the (really) long dock to the terminal, which by the way forces entering passengers to walk through the liquor store, souvenir store, perfume store, and whatever else they can think to sell you before they let you out into the countryside.  Coming back is the same way; they take one last crack at you as you board the boat, forcing you to walk through all the shops.
   Anyway, our tour today was the Deluxe Beach, Catamaran, Sail, and Snorkel Tour.  We boarded a 65-foot catamaran that very soon was jammed with fellow swimmers/snorkelers.  We left port and set sail down the coast about five miles to an area not far off the beach.  We were told the water had 70 feet visibility, lots of fish, and beautiful coral.  Shirley chose not to participate, primarily because we were required to walk down a ladder and jump in, but more importantly, climb up onto the ladder and step out when the time came to exit the water.  She did not think she could make the climb.  I was ready to snorkel, however.  The last time I snorkeled was in Hawai’i in 2011, and I enjoy it.
   Into the water I went, along with the rest of the boat’s mob.  It wasn’t perfect snorkeling for several reasons:  We were restricted to a certain area which was too small for the number of people, and as a result it was difficult to snorkel more than ten feet without running into someone.  The water was clear, but the coral was dead rock…very little live coral was seen, and that goes for the fish also.  I may have seen a fish or two, but I’m not sure.  That may have been my fault; I, of course, snorkeled without my glasses, and my vision is somewhat limited without them (an understatement.)  Fortunately, I had my GoPro camera with me, so when I view my video, I’ll know better if there were fish in the waters or not. 
But at the time I saw nada.  When I snorkeled in Hawai’i in 2011, I had prescription goggles, which are wonderful for the visually challenged.  The last think about the snorkeling was…I ran out of gas after about 20 minutes.  I had to keep kicking to avoid other snorkelers and to keep even with the boat due to a slight current pulling us away from the boat.  We had been scheduled to be there for 45 minutes, but I was done in short order.  Came out of the water and sat by Shirley.  It wasn’t a lost cause; the weather was beautiful, and the scenery was lovely.  After all, it WAS Cozumel. 
     We hoisted our sails and weighed anchor at the scheduled time and headed to our next spot, a beach set up for the fun times: beach volleyball, kayaks, floats, hammocks, chairs/umbrellas, unlimited/open bar (we didn’t do that one), and places just to sit and relax.  The beach was lovely white sand with gentle waves.  Shirley and I both enjoyed the water and floated, swam, sat, dug for shells, and enjoyed the ambience of the areas for most of our hour and fifteen minutes there. The weather and temperature were ideal.  It was a nice time. The most interesting sideline to this part of the adventure was that as we approached the beach to unload, the captain asked everyone to go to the front of the boat.  That in turn raised the propellers in the rear and allowed then to remain unstuck as he ran the ship as far onto the shore as it would go.  We exited down the same stairs we snorkeled from to get to the beach.  When we left, we did the reverse…everyone to the front of the boat, he put the engines into reverse and the props pulled us off the sand as smooth as you can imagine.  About 4:30 though, the sails went up again (literally) and off we went back to the Breeze.  It was a beautiful sailing day.
     We got back to the docks about 5:15, and with the deadline to return to the boat was 5:30, we had no time to shop.  But we dutifully walked through all the stores headed back to the ship.  As soon as we exited the stores, however, we still had a long walk to the ship, so I dealt with one of the local “transporters,” these guys who have a bicycle with two wheels in back with two side by side seats.  We climbed aboard and were whisked to the gangplank in no time and zipped through check in with no problems.
     By this time it was 5:35, and our dinner time is 6:00.  We were both salty and hot, so we had to freshen up before dinner.  I called Jerry and they had the same dilemma from their tour.  So we told them we would meet them at our assigned table.  As we were walking by their room, however, out they came, so other than being about 15 minutes late, we made it to dinner.
    Tonight it was roasted meatballs as an appetizer, fried, crusted Portobello mushrooms with vegetable sides, and cheese cake.  The mushrooms did not look impressive when delivered, but were actually pretty tasty.  The cheesecake was so-so.   We had a good dinner and visit, and afterward, Jerry felt the need for popcorn, so we went to the tenth deck where popcorn is distributed, and he and Shirley got their popcorn.  I eat popcorn occasionally, but there are other foods that attract me more.
    Since we were all pretty well famished from the day’s activities, we said our goodbyes about 8:30 and went to our staterooms to collapse for the night.  A good day.

Saturday, September 16, 2017,  Sea Day

     I think all of us were worn from yesterday’s activities, because we didn’t begin to stir until after 8:00   We decided that since this was the last full day of our cruise, we would enjoy a nice, sit-down, order-from-the-menu breakfast in the Blush Restaurant (where we have our evening meals) instead of the buffet in the Lido. 
    So down to deck three we went.  We did not have a reserved table for breakfast, but the line went quickly and we were soon entabled not too far from where our normal evening dining spot was.  So we felt at home.  We even had the same waitress and waiter.  They apparently work long hours.  Much more high-class menu than the generic stuff at the Lido.  I enjoyed eggs Benedict with sausage links, cinnamon rolls, and chocolate pancakes. Plenty of coffee, orange juice, and pineapple juice. It was very nice.  We even had a table-hopping magician visit and dazzle us with his tricks.  He really was pretty good.  We chatted and sipped coffee for over an hour, thoroughly enjoying the ambience and the company of our friends, the Stewarts.  I would tell you how I felt about Jerry Stewart, but I know he will read this sooner or later, so I will say simply he’s a great guy (choke.) Let’s just say he is married to a VERY patient, understanding, and wonderful woman. I’ve never heard her raise her voice…. I doubt if Jerry can say that.
    Since this is the last full day of travel, all the stores on the ship had their clearance sales going full blast, so we had to at least look the merchandise over.  Naturally, I had to buy a couple of tee shirts for posterity’s sake.  They had flashy watches 2 for $30.00, but I must be getting really cheap, because I didn’t buy any.  I still had my watches from the last cruise, so I couldn’t justify shelling out even fifteen bucks for another watch.  I’ve become MUCH more discriminating.
    Somewhere along the way we lost the Stewarts, so Shirley and I went to the Promenade Deck (5th) and sat out under an umbrella and absorbed the scenery. It’s very tranquil to watch the sea slowly slide by, especially on a calm day when there is absolute no ship rocking at all.  It’s like sitting at an oceanside hotel.
    At 11:00 we went to the Ovation Theater where we had a thirty-minute briefing about debarkation procedures for tomorrow.  The process was pretty routine for cruise debarkationers, since everyone was scheduled at various times to disembark, starting around 8:30.  Our time to disembark was 11:15, which was a little late, but at the same time gave us an opportunity to get one more breakfast in before we had to go back into the world.
    After the briefing, we went back to our stateroom.  Shirley’s back and leg were still bothering her, and she needed to get off her feet.  While she read, I sadly pulled out the suitcase and began packing items for our exit tomorrow.  We had to have our luggage packed and outside our stateroom door that night between 7:30 and 10:00 for it to be carried down to the receiving room inside the terminal,  Saves a lot of luggage lugging, but you’ve got to plan for what you’re going to wear the next day and pack accordingly.
     About 1:00 Shirley got a hankering for something to drink, so we went up to the Lido.  Naturally you can’t drink tea or whatever without something to go with it, so we went through the “sweets” line and picked up a few morsels of sugary stuff.  With a little coffee to finish it off, we sat and consumed a day’s worth of calories, probably, but it was good.  Back to the room to continue packing
    By the time 5:15 or so rolled around, we had enjoyed a nap, did a little reading, and gotten most of the packing done.  We readied ourselves for the evening dinner and promptly at 6:00 we picked up the Stewarts and headed to our final cruise dinner together.  Tonight I had baked onion soup, cornmeal crusted chicken breast with broccoli, and cherry pie and ice cream.  For once, it was all very tasty.  Shirley had tiger shrimp creole which was apparently very good, also, according to Shirley.  We finished and, since this was the last night, we drifted by the den of iniquity (casino), if for no other reason than to cash in our winnings, modest though they be.  I maintained my record of having never lost.
    Back to the room to finalize our packing and place our luggage outside our door.  As I mentioned earlier, we would not see it again until we got into the terminal in Galveston, and by 9:30 our luggage had disappeared en route to its final destination.  We were hoping for a happy reunion with our luggage tomorrow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017,  Return to Galveston
    Woke up this morning about 5:30, just in time to see our Carnival Breeze being gently pushed into her dock.  Needless to say, it was not time to get up, since debarkation did not begin until 8:30.  So it was back to bed for me.  Around 7:00 we began to stir and prepare for our saying goodbye to our cruise vacation.  To unload 4,100 passengers in the most organized fashion, Carnival assigns debarking times by the same zone number that our luggage will be placed in the terminal. In the terminal, the luggage area is divided into zones, and your luggage is placed in an assigned zone.  Our debarking number was the same as our luggage zone…29.  Since there were only 32 zones, it meant that we would be some of the last people off the boat, but the good side of that situation was we would have time for one more hearty breakfast in the Lido restaurant.
    We had to be out of our room, though, by 8:30.  At that time all passengers had to go to a waiting area, breakfast, or somewhere to await the crew calling their zone numbers, at which time passengers could make their way to deck three and the gangplank. So to the Lido we went, which was abuzz with last minute activity, but we were able to find a table, and indulge in another great breakfast.  I’ve learned to like eggs benedict, especially with sausage, potatoes, pancakes, toast, etc.…you get the picture.  It’s going to be starvation city when we get home.
    Our estimated departure time was 11:15; however, everything went much quicker than planned, and by 10:30 we were headed down to deck three.  We flashed our Carnival cards one more time as we walked onto the three-story high gangplank, which zigged and zagged until we were down on the ground floor.  Apparently, the big thing as of this cruise was the lack of having to make any sort of declaration to customs upon leaving the ship.  We just walked over to where our luggage was, picked it up and walked out the door.
    Then, of course, the fun began, as one had to haul the luggage about half a block to where the buses were picking up passengers to take them to their cars.  Since there were 4,100 people trying to get to cars, there was a bit of a line.  Actually, it did not take too long; in probably 30 minutes, we were loaded aboard and taken to parking lot number two, where our Sorento stood out all alone because all its neighbors had already headed home.  We loaded up and shortly were approaching the onramp to IH45…and that’s where we stopped.
    Bumper to bumper as far as you could see.  It took us almost an hour to get over the Galveston causeway bridge, and over an hour to get to exit ten, where we had decided to stop at McDonalds for a pit stop.  Inside there were about a hundred people, so we decided to press on.  To make a long story short, it took us nearly three hours to get to Lupe Tortillas just south of FM1960 on IH45.  Turned out there was road construction and one lane traffic for several miles.  It had traffic backed up clear back to Galveston.
    The Stewarts and the Downing had their last meal together…Tex-Mex, which folks on Carnival Lines ships do not know how to make.  I’m not that crazy about Mexican food, but my three companions ate like it was their first meal of the week.  Give me steak or seafood any day.
    By the time we dropped off the Stewarts at their home, it was after 1:30, and it was after 2:00 by the time we rolled into our driveway. It was good to be home, but it had been a great cruise.
    In summary, if I had to give a grade on every facet of the cruise, I would give top marks on everything except one area.  The ship was beautiful, and the entertainment was great. The service, be it our cabin steward or restaurant wait staff, was exemplary, and the staff’s concern for us when we received the emergency call was beyond the call of duty.  The excursions we took were interesting and enjoyable, and our stateroom was comfortable and quiet (well, mostly.)  The only area where Carnival fell down was the quality of the food.  This is our third cruise with Carnival, and we have ridden three different ships.  Previously, the quality of the food could be ranked with any fine restaurant in Houston, but now the food service has been “Americanized.” (In Jerry’s words) No table cloths on the tables except on formal nights.  One set of silverware (one fork, one knife…NO spoon unless your food choice required one.)  The steaks I had were fair to good…not great.  Good flavor but tough, or tender and flat tasting.  Even the servings of sides and appetizers were marginal because they were really small….the two fried oysters as an appetizer were the perfect example.  I don’t expect an appetizer to be a full meal, but that’s representative of the size of offerings.  In general, the food was average…edible, but you didn’t take a bite and say “Wow! That’s good!”
    Everything else was very wonderful; however, I’ll admit my own bed at home really felt good that Sunday evening when I crawled between the sheets.  Will we take another cruise?   Let’s see…I have a break in my work in May…..