Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All in the family, relative-ly speaking: In honor of Cousin John on his 66th birthday today

Every family has its noted people in terms of celebrity. There’s always a distant cousin – actor, politician, singer, athlete – who you claim as a close relative and hope they appear at the annual family reunion.
On my side, the late Yippie founder-radical Jerry Rubin (he of the famous 1969 Chicago 7 trial) and singer Bobby Bloom (the lightweight hit song, “Montego Bay”) are wobbly branches on the family tree. Sorry, you’re not impressed.
But, my wife, Jodie, has two strong branches on her family tree. On her mother’s side, there is Dr. John Turner Tinsley, a bona fide hero of the Texas Revolution, involved with survivors of the Alamo, the Battle of San Jacinto, and the Battle of Gonzales in 1835, which led to the siege at The Alamo.
From the “Frontier Days of Texas,” by author A.J. Sowell, it states, “Dr. John T. Tinsley shot one Mexican who stopped to look back … (after the Alamo fell) … and General Sam Houston was in Gonzales. Gen. Houston made the Tinsley house his headquarters. When the army left Gonzales on the approach of the Mexican army under Santa Anna, Dr. Tinsley materially aided the cause of independence by making a trip to the coast after ammunition and intercepting the Army of Houston on its line of march with the powder and lead in time to be used in the famous Battle of San Jacinto, which was fought soon after.”
He remained in Gonzales, as its doctor, alderman, mayor, justice of the peace before dying on March 5, 1878. He is buried in one of the oldest cemeteries in Texas – the Gonzales Masonic Cemetery.
A second hero comes from her father’s side. Her cousin is San Antonio native John Blaha, who was a United States astronaut from 1980-97, flying five times aboard three of the five U.S. space shuttles.
I met John at the annual family reunion in Boerne and if I hadn’t been told of his background, I’d never have known his history. He was just a regular guy, a very nice, warm individual … with a little more to say when people asked him, “What did you do for a living?”
When the country collectively got a knot in its stomach on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, learning that the Space Shuttle Columbia had been destroyed upon re-entry, I thought of Cousin John and how he must felt, tragically losing members of his NASA family.
Blaha, 66, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1965 and earned a master’s degree in astro­nautical engineering from Purdue University in 1966. He flew 361 combat missions in Vietnam before taking his experience into the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1971.
In the next five years, Blaha was a test pilot working with the Royal Air Force at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment in England, and was assigned to work for the Assistant Chief of Staff, Studies and Analyses, at Headquarters USAF in the Pentagon.
In May, 1980, Blaha was selected as an astronaut, logging a total of 161 days (more than 3,864 hours) in space during his five space missions. He was twice pilot on Discovery (STS-29 and STS-33), was Spacecraft Commander on Atlantis (STS-43) and Columbia (STS-58), served on the Mir-22 space station as Board Engineer 2, and was a Mission Specialist on Atlantis (STS-79 and STS-81). On his five missions, astronauts launched satellites, and conducted scores of vital scientific, engineering and medical experiments.
On Sept. 16, 1996, after docking, Blaha replaced astronaut Shannon Lucid, to continue the American presence on the Mir Space Station and joined the Mir-22 crew of Valeri Korzun and Alexander Kaleri. For his Mir adventure, Blaha took Russian language training in California and in Star City, Russia.
During Blaha’s time aboard Mir, the mission completed many life sciences and materials science experiments, including: the Binary Collodial Alloy test, for liquid crystal displays; drugs that dissolve over time in the human body; treatment of oil spills with micro organisms; and the Cartilage in Space investigation into three dimensional tissue growth.
Also, the Greenhouse experiment showed wheat will grow in microgravity for a complete life cycle, and demonstrated successful photosynthesis. The Muscle Performance experiment (in conjunction with the Russian exercise program) demonstrated how exercise in space minimizes the loss of bone density, muscle volume and muscle strength. He returned to Earth after 128 days in space; his final mission ended aboard Atlantis on Jan. 22, 1997.
He logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time in 34 different aircraft, and wrote numerous technical articles on spacecraft performance and control. He received almost every conceivable honor, from the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross to the Russian Order of Friendship Medal to the British Royal Air Force Cross to being a charter member of the Texas Science Hall of Fame. Oh yes, he’s been president of the Zoeller Family Reunion. Can’t forget that.
After his active space career, Blaha became deeply involved with the Challenger Learning Center of San Antonio, a place where all sixth grade students in San Antonio could go and fly a two-hour space mission to intercept a comet. Blaha was board chairman of the foundation that raised the money, built and operated the facility.
“I talked with schools to inspire kids to pursue the career their heart told them to follow – that they were important – that they could make a difference,” he said, noting that more than 26,000 students attended in a 2-1/2 year period. “The teachers, students, parents, and superintendents liked it; they wanted me to double the size so the students could attend more often.”
This past May, Blaha and fellow shuttle astronauts Robert Cabana, Bryan O’Connor and Loren Shriver joined an elite group of U.S. space heroes when they were inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame during a public ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
It’s the seventh group of space shuttle astronauts named to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (it totals 71). Earlier inductees served in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs, including such American legends as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell and Sally Ride – just to name a few.
In 1989, he wrote this as part of his space journal: “The achievements of the entire human race put us here. All those smart people through the centuries have had a hand in building the Discovery. Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and many others provided the scientific and mathematical foundation. I am reminded of the old saying, ‘We are only as tall as the shoulders of those we are standing upon.’”
I don’t know what your definition of “hero” is, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. And you just read about it.
But to us, he is just Cousin John – one of the family.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Riding the Texas barbecue trail

Barbecue is different things to people in different regions of the United States. In the Carolinas, it’s pork ribs and pulled pork; in the Midwest, it’s beef ribs because of the Jewish population that cannot eat pork. In Texas, it’s beef brisket.
You can find a barbecue joint in every city, town and greasy spot on some lonesome back road in this state. But there is a stretch in Central Texas where you find the very, VERY best examples of Texas barbecue cooking and it is easy to obtain and hard to forget.
One can easily, if the stomach allowed, follow a simple path from Elgin to Taylor to Lockhart to Luling, and gorge (or feast depending on your point of view) on THE very best barbecue offered in this state – bar none!
If you come south from Dallas, do NOT go through Austin on Interstate-35 (the traditional route). Employ your Texas Toll Tag and skirt the miserable traffic on the new toll road (135), north of Georgetown, which will take you to the outskirts of Round Rock, and the starting destination, Taylor, and Louis Mueller’s, where the ambience is pure old-time Texas barbecue.
Mueller’s is right in “downtown” Taylor, home of the Fightin’ Ducks, but aficionados know the location, at 206 W. Second Street, for its tender brisket and smoky atmosphere. The walls have NOT been touched, it seems, for decades and you can feel them teeming with old pit smoke ash from days gone by.
A few miles down Toll Road 135, exit at Manor and head east to Elgin (on U.S. Highway 290, east of Manor), home of the popular Southside Market.
At this spot, you will partake of the house specialty, “hot guts,” the term referring to the particular spicy hot sausage links made at this location. You can order at the counter and eat at a series of long tables or grab some pre-packaged (but just as good) for the road, and eventually your freezer to unwrap at a future barbecue.
From Elgin, you travel southward on Texas Highway 95 to Highway 21 and south down U.S. 183 to the city of Lockhart, home of two of Texas Monthly’s two five barbecue locations – Smitty’s and Kreuz Market. Smitty’s is located in the old Kreuz Market and began after what can best be described as a family feud when the Kreuz patriarch passed away several years ago.
As a result, you get the best of both worlds, the best open pit indirect heat barbecue cooking in America. In each spot, (Kreuz is on U.S. 183, north of downtown and right now it takes a little navigating around new overpass construction to find the parking lot), meat sold by the pound, along with sausage rings, is given to you on butcher paper with a slice of bread or saltines. That’s it! If you want “sides, it’s extra and not really recommended (although the beans at Smitty’s looked good).
And you eat with your God-given utensils – your hands. At Smitty’s, try the shoulder meat; it’s more tender than the regular brisket and will literally melt in your mouth.
Finally, 18 miles to the south of Lockhart is Luling, home of the annual Watermelon Thump and across from the Farmers Market is Luling City Market. Again, service comes on butcher paper and ribs are part of the menu – all sold by the pound.
Our sausage was SO fresh that it squirted when we bit into it. You know that’s freshly made.
At most of these places, a good glass of tea isn’t $2.50 or $3 a glass; usually a buck and two bits. And the aroma that lingers in the air from the pits is enough to have you return time and time again. It will stay on your clothes like a wonderful perfumed scent for hours.
As they say, only in Texas!