After the Dallas area we headed for Houston to visit our good friends Ron and Cathy. As well as being such good friends, Ron was a former shipmate of mine during two different shipboard tours of duty while in the Navy. Ron retired some years back and returned to his home state of Texas and a job in the oil industry. Since Houston was to be the last stop where we would be visiting friends for some time, we picked this stop over to get what we hope is the last of the warranty work done on the motorhome. We figured that if we were forced to stay there for awhile it wouldn’t affect any downstream plans so long as it was a reasonable layover.
As it turns out we timed our arrival to the Houston area more or less perfectly. We arrived on a Wednesday and Ron had a total hip replacement the following Tuesday. So, we were able to spend some time with the two of them before the surgery and then following his release from the hospital, Connie was able to practice her home health skills and I was available to drive Ron to and from physical therapy for a few days thereby reducing the stress in Cathy’s life a little.
I am getting way ahead of myself. Several days before we arrived in Houston, I phoned the local RV dealership that would be doing the warranty work to make an appointment. We had a leak that needed to get fixed and some water damaged wood that had to be replaced. I wanted to get into the shop as soon as possible so the parts could get put on order. I even offered to send photographs via e-mail to give them a head start on the parts. Unfortunately, they said they needed to see the damage for themselves before any parts could be ordered. The earliest appointment we could get was on the Friday following our Wednesday arrival. Since the dealership was on the way to the RV park we would be staying in, we decided to stop on the way and let them look at the damage. After about an hour of working with some very junior and inexperienced service writers we were finally introduced to the body guy who took pictures and assured us that the parts would be put on order right away.
When we returned to the dealership on Friday for our appointment we expected to get a status on the order and of course get the leak fixed. We had several other unrelated small lighting issues to get fixed as well, so we figured we would get a good day’s work done. We left the coach in the dealer’s hands and took off for a day of shopping. When we returned late in the afternoon we were surprised to learn that about the only things that had been completed were alignment of the headlights and some work done on the leak, but was it really fixed? Who knew? Worse, we learned that the replacement wood had not been placed on order on Wednesday and neither it nor any of the electrical components had been put on order that day because they didn’t know if we were coming back. To say I was angry is pretty much a non-statement. Fortunately for the service writer, I was moving stuff from the car to the motorhome when he told Connie all the bad news and that we had to guarantee the order with a credit card even though we would not be paying for the parts anyway. As I arrived in the coach she was telling the unsuspecting young man that he had better introduce us to the service manager because Frank was going to start yelling as soon as he heard what she had been told. Kevin was smart enough to do just that. I nearly took the service manager’s head off, but got most frustrated when he told me that he was sorry. I was long beyond wanting to hear an apology, I was ready to hear how the dealership were going to take some of the heat and pay to have the parts expressed from Indiana. That did not happen.
The service writer wrote up the order and passed it on to the parts people and promised he would follow up first thing the Monday morning when the factory opened for business. Connie and I decided to pay Kevin a visit Monday morning on our way to Ron and Cathy’s house. Kevin nearly panicked when he saw me walk through the door. He was with another customer, so his partner offered to help us. Kevin showed some grit by saying that he should take care of us. He finished with his other customer and then told us that he could not yet see our parts as being on order. So, we all walked over to the parts department and sure enough there were no parts yet on order for the day. Kevin made quick work out of rectifying that issue, but came back to us eventually to say we would need to check back the next day for status. That was where I drew the line. We had already lost five days because the parts were not placed on order when we first brought the coach in. I was not going to wait another day to find out that someone in Elkhart did not read e-mail the previous day. So, I insisted that they be called and told to track the order and give me a shipping date. Kevin went back to the parts lady and came back some time later with a telephone number. I just about exploded. My next words to him were along the lines that if I had to I would pay another visit to the service manager, but under no circumstances was I making any calls to Elkhart nor was I leaving until someone did make a call and I got the status of the order with a shipping date. Another half hour to forty-five minutes passed before I got what I was asking for, but I did finally get it.
The parts finally arrived the following Monday and we were put to the top of the list for Tuesday. On Tuesday we got to meet the shop foreman. Boy what a breath of fresh air. This guy was a retired Navy Boiler Technician Chief Petty Officer. He was happy to see another retired Sailor and promised us he would do his best to get us fixed and on our way. So, we left the coach with him and went out for yet another day of shopping. Our new friend called us a full two hours earlier than we expected and told us they should be done within the half hour. We worked our way back to the dealership arriving just a little while before they were done. Everything was done except the replacement of a switch we never use, so that was no big deal. The woodwork, while not perfect, was certainly acceptable. My only concern was that they could not find any reason why the slide had leaked the night before our return visit. We finally decided that maybe it was not a seal around the hole that was leaking, but the box itself. I told them that I would check that myself when got back to the campground. With handshakes all around we left feeling much better than when we arrived some two weeks earlier.
When we got back to the campground I climbed up on the roof and sure enough I was able to find an area on the slide’s roof that looked suspicious. So, the next morning I got out my long ladder and roof sealant and went to work. By the time I was finished I was convinced that I had made a difference. Several days later we had a terrific rainstorm while in San Antonio with the wind blowing from our aft port quarter, the exact direction we have always experienced leakage in the past. We had none! Case closed? We sure hope so.
Our time in Houston was not nearly as bad as it would appear from reading the above. We had a great time with Cathy and Ron going out to dinner at a couple of their favorite restaurants and spending an evening in their hot tub and drinking copious quantities of beer. It was a great reunion with dear friends.
The day before Ron’s surgery, Connie and I took a trip to Brenham, Texas, where Blue Bell Ice Cream is headquartered and obviously manufactured. I had gotten a tip from Shelley, one of my most considerate readers of this tome, that we should go and take the tour. Shelley was born and raised there, but she must not have been allowed to eat the ice cream as she is way too thin to have ever allowed a spoonful of that stuff to cross her lips. Well, we took Shelley’s advice and made the relatively short drive west and north of Katy through some pretty nice country to the small yet thriving little town of Brenham. I even remembered to take my camera. Unfortunately, I did not remember to check the battery first. I found it to be dead on arrival. Therefore, there are no pictures.
If you have never had Blue Bell Ice Cream, you don’t know what you are missing. The stuff is to die for. It will, of course, kill you if you let it take over your eating habits. Here are a few statistics. Blue Bell Ice Cream is the third largest maker and distributor of ice cream in the country. They do it all in three plants. The original plant is in Brenham with a plant in Oklahoma and another in Alabama. The product is sold only in 17 states making that first stat even more meaningful. The plant in Brenham employs about 1000 people and uses the milk from 50,000 cows each day, thereby keeping a lot of independent dairy farmers in business as well. The end product has to be about the very best ice cream in the country. We paid for the tour but got 2 huge scoops of ice cream afterward. We were glad me made the trip. As for the missing photos, well, I can say that I would not have been able to take any pictures in the plant, so all you missed out on was the area around the plant.
We took the time to drive around town while we were there. We found it to be a cute town that has maintained its small town features even with the success of the creamery.
Ron was released from the hospital three days following his surgery. He would have walked out had there not been a policy forcing him to use a wheel chair to make his exit. He wasted no time walking once we got him home. Connie and I had wanted to have Ron and Cathy come to our home for dinner one night. We were not able to fit it in before the surgery and even though Ron was up and walking as well as he was, we felt that the stairs going into the coach would be more than he could handle. So, on Sunday we took all the ingredients to Ron and Cathy’s house and I cooked dinner on their grill. I even wore my chef’s outfit to add a little humor to the occasion. It was another fun filled afternoon and evening and of course we all ate too much.
Connie and I finally pulled in our slides, came off the levelers, disconnected from shore services and rolled out of the Houston area on Friday, October 19, a full 16 days after we arrived. Now, given the help that I think we provided Ron and Cathy, I think the time we spent in the area was appropriate. However, all but two days of that time were because of the fiasco at the RV dealership but we would have stayed a week or so anyway to visit.
Houston was followed by San Antonio. We stayed at Fort Sam Houston in their RV Park. Connie and I tend to compare all military RV Parks to either Eagle Hammock at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia or to Apache Flats at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Most have some features that compete and maybe even exceed one or both of these “standards”, but none can go head to head in our limited experience. I say all this as an introduction to Fort Sam Houston. Here is a park that really has got some things going for it. I think the two biggest pluses would be the wide paved roads and the awesome amount of green space throughout the park. Even when nearly full the park looked remarkably sparsely populated. On the down side, the common area is only open when the office is open. That makes it difficult to meet other campers not in your immediate vicinity. While the location of the park is great, getting to it is not so great. The road within the base has washed out from flooding so much that the base commander finally closed it. The way in now is through a gate on the backside of the base adjacent to the Army National Guard Armory. That would not be bad, except the road is bad and in order to visit anything else on the base other than the helicopter port you have to exit the base and drive all the way around to another gate. There is a bit of freeway noise which is often blocked out by the noise of the passing trains. I happen to enjoy the sound of the trains, so I found that to be a plus. In the end, Fort Sam Houston has a lot to offer, but it does not quite match up to Kings Bay or Fort Huachuca.
We spent three nights in San Antonio. I wanted good Mexican food, Connie wanted to shop and Ron told us we had to go on the River Walk. Of course you cannot go to San Antonio and not visit the Alamo. We managed to pack all of that and more into our limited time in the area.
We did the Mexican food the first night. I wanted authentic, so we drove and drove until we found what looked like the real deal to me. Judging by the large number of Hispanics in the restaurant, I think we were more than a little successful. On Saturday we drove downtown to see the Alamo. Connie and I had both thought we had been there before. It took us no time at all to realize that we had dreamed a visit as we recognized nothing but the front of the church. We had a pleasant self guided tour of the remains of the missionary and filled our heads with the history of the place. Then we were off to the River Walk. Neither of us had any idea what to expect with the River Walk. We probably would not have even bothered had Ron not told us we had to see it. So, we started walking downtown from the Alamo and eventually we came to a bridge. When we looked over the side we immediately understood what Ron meant. There is a portion of the San Antonio River that forms a circle. I am guessing that it was once an oxbow that has been dredged to form the circular shape, although I found nothing in writing to support this thought. Lining the river bank is one restaurant after another with the occasional shop or hotel access peppered along the way. The buildings stand only several feet from the bank and tower above the trees that line the shore. The walkway is paved but there are large expanses that have no railing or other obstruction to keep one from falling into the river. I can imagine that Friday and Saturday nights can be a bit wild along the walk. Of those restaurants, there are more than a few that would have beaten my authentic Mexican restaurant from Friday night to bits. There are also a number of chains that I would not have expected to see such as the Rainforest Café. To make the carnival atmosphere complete there are tour boats that pass by the walk on a continuous basis full of tourists learning about the history of the walk. We did not take the boat ride. I think we are saving that for our return visit when we will meet up with Ron and Cathy for a night on the town. We did stop at one of the more familiar restaurants for lunch. I will say that while the food was certainly very good, we wound up paying more for lunch that day than we had paid for dinners the night before and that evening combined. As my good friend, Pat, says “that’s just wrong”.
San Antonio is also home to Brooke Army Medical Center. This facility is something to behold. It is a mammoth building and a busy place for sure. Many of our nation’s wounded heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan are mending in this facility. We saw several burn victims as we walked the halls and during our visit to the PX and Commissary at Fort Sam Houston. Between the two bases there is a lot of training going on trying to prepare the medical community for combat medicine. Outside the main hospital at Brooke Army Medical Center we saw a field hospital tent set up and likely being used as a training area for doctors, nurses and medics. Connie and I went to the hospital to get some prescriptions filled. We were surprised to see that the hospital is still seeing retired military even with all the wounded folks they must have on board. I felt a little uneasy trying to add to the workload of what has to be a strained to the max facility. As it turned out we would have wasted our time getting the prescriptions filled there because we could not have gotten refills mailed from there to wherever we would be when the time comes. Nonetheless, it was worth seeing what we were able to see walking through the ground floor of the hospital.
By the way, we did take care of the shopping itch while in the area. At times I think Connie shops because she is afraid I am going to take her somewhere where there are no stores and then sell the car. Like that would ever happen.
Keeping our goal to be in Fort Huachuca by the end of the month, we headed on West on US 90 from San Antonio to Del Rio, Texas and the Laughlin Air Force Base Family Camp. This would be a two night layover and it would also be a repeat visit for us. Interestingly neither of us remembered much at all about the drive from San Antonio to Del Rio but we both remembered the campground. I even remembered the site we were on the last time we were there some seven years ago. While Laughlin is a nice little base and the campground is well laid out and maintained, it offers absolutely nothing in amenities. There is no gathering place, no laundry facilities, nothing except better than average RV sites. The current camp host is no great catch either, but that is another story which will go untold. Laughlin is a pilot training base. So, from about 10:00 AM in the morning (after donuts and coffee) until 10:00 PM in the evening the air is full of single engine planes and their slightly larger, slightly noisier jet engine trainers. They must do hundreds of take-offs, landings and touch and goes each day. It is amazing. I am not one to complain about military training, so I will not complain about the noise and smell of jet fuel. I will only say that it is part of the atmosphere at Laughlin and you have to be willing to put up with it or just stay away.
The last time we went through Laughlin that is about what we did, pass through. We stooped at the base and did not even unhook the car. It was an overnighter and out the first thing in the morning (we were moving from one job to another and had precious little time to enjoy the landscape). This time we explored the city of Del Rio a little. By its name you know it is on a river. That river is the Rio Grande. Knowing that you can appreciate that there is a great Mexican influence in the town. The local super market which is part of the statewide HEB chain carries as many Mexican food products as it does American products. Connie and I drove all around the town trying to see what makes it tick. There are a lot of people living there and they all do not support the Air Force Base. Del Rio is the county seat and as such is home to the county detention center which is a facility that from all exterior appearances would rival a federal facility. I have no idea how many people the jail employs, but it has to be hundreds. Of course that begs the question “where does the business come from?” I have no idea, but where ever it comes from the facility certainly seems capable of handling it.
Outside town to the North is Amistad Reservoir which is formed by the Pecos, Rio Grande and Devil Rivers. The reservoir is huge. Since the Rio Grande is a contributing river then part of the reservoir is in Mexico. Now, for fans of the border fence, make some sense of this for me. Most of the border between the United States and Mexico is along the river. In fact, the center of the natural river is the border. So, do we give up the river for the fence? I don’t think so. We need the water. When you look at Amistad Reservoir you quickly see that there is no reasonable way to expect full containment of the border. So, why bother with the fence at all? The environmental damage will be horrible and the effectiveness will be minimal at best. Enough politics.
Anyway this huge lake is certainly something to behold. We were surprised to survey the shoreline with our binoculars and realize that the lake appears to be at normal level. With the great drought that has plagued most of the southern states for so long now we fully expected to see a receding shoreline. There are a number of recreational access points to the reservoir that are controlled by the National Park System. We explored a number of them and found some interesting things. One thing that sort of bothered us is the sad state of repair some of the facilities are in. There is an amphitheater where the grass has grown higher than the benches and the projection booth has been broken into and the screen is covered in graffiti. Obviously this area is not being used for any educational purpose. At least no supervised education is going on. Who knows what sort of social education occurs at night? We were also a bit surprised at the lack of use the campgrounds seem to be getting. There is a small military campground on one peninsula that juts out into the reservoir which is getting some business, but the national park campgrounds were nearly empty. I suppose it could be a seasonal thing, but I would think that some of the early snowbirds should be passing through the area like we are. It just seemed a bit strange to see so few people.
One of the campgrounds had a road that was obviously built when the reservoir was much smaller than it is now. I have included a photo of the road. If you look really hard you can see where it goes below the water and where it comes out the other side. Note the sign on the right side. “Speed bumps ahead”, I believe that is a bit of an understatement.
We were only at Laughlin and Del Rio for two nights. We ate at home one night and continued my quest for authentic Mexican food the second night. The place we fell upon that second night was definitely the real deal. The guy working the counter spoke very good English. He was the only one who spoke any English other than “thank you”. He took our order and translated it to a gal who entered it into the computer. I had a full dinner while Connie had two side dishes. We both had a beer each. With tip we spent less than $20 for dinner and we left full and very satisfied.
I almost forgot, there is a nine hole golf course on Laughlin Air Force Base. Connie agreed to play and I agreed to play only once around. We had a pretty good time and Connie, while not outscoring me, certainly out played me. Her score was lower than her normal for nine holes while mine was a good seven to ten strokes higher. I had better get to work or she will soon be outscoring me.
From Laughlin we continued on US 90 for a good ways and then turned North on State Road 118 to Fort Davis in Jefferson Davis County, Texas. My next post will discuss the adventures we encounter here.