By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933

When last I left you I was in Washington DC,  exhausted, achy and feeling every day of my age.  But sleep is a magical antidote and sure enough, the next morning I was raring to go.   After another trip on the Metro (we had already learned how to shove ourselves into a crowded train car), we began our day at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  If left to my own devices, I would still be wandering around there. If you love history, The Smithsonian is nirvana.  We toured it twice and STILL didn’t visit every exhibit.  We loved the wing that displays various artifacts from the Presidents’ administrations but were particularly enthralled with the Inaugural Ball gowns of the First Ladies.  Not only were they beautiful examples of couture fashion, but the exhibit gives you a different perspective on the size of the women who wore them.  For example, I always thought of Eleanor Roosevelt as a rather large woman but her dress would indicate the opposite.  So maybe it was just her height that made her seem big.  Or it could be that since this was her first of FOUR Inaugural gowns, the talent of the White House pastry chef took its toll.  I saw a picture of her 1945 gown and let’s just say that by then even a good pair of Spanx would not have helped her into the gown from 1933.  And who among us can’t relate to that?

Holocaust Shoes

A fraction of the shoes in the display

Next we went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  I have always had a special interest in WWII so I was anxious to see it.  I was particularly heartened to see that Katie and Abby were very interested in learning more about it and absorbing all that they could.  The building itself is a marvelous structure, four stories high, light in the center atrium but dark and somber on the perimeters.  As you begin the journey through the museum with movies, pictures and artifacts from the early years of the war, the hallways are quite narrow and gives one a slight sensation of what it must have been like to be hoarded like cattle to an unknown destination – everyone pushing and jockeying for position.  To compare one section or display of the museum as being the “most” anything – frightening, scary, sad, depressing – is futile.   Each person needs to judge for him/herself what is the most meaningful.  Personally, I found the exhibit of over 4,000 shoes on loan from the Auschwitz museum the most unforgettable.  Shoes and other personal items  were taken from the prisoners upon entry to Auschwitz and sorted for distribution to local citizens or shipment back to Germany.  At the end of the war when the camp was liberated there were hundreds of thousands of shoes piled up.  In 1945 when the great journalist Edward R. Murrow visited Auschwitz he saw the shoes and wrote the following:  “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes.  But how can you describe several thousand shoes?”  The fact is, you can’t.

After the emotional experience of visiting the Holocaust Museum we were in need of fresh air and food.  We found our way to the Shake Shack – one of the more delightful eating establishments I’ve frequented.  As the name implies, there is ice cream involved here.  LOTS of ice cream.  We each had burgers and possibly the best french fries I’ve ever tasted and then moved in for the real deal…ice cream.  How good was it?  I could have taken a bath in it.  I’m glad I don’t live in D.C. – I’d be a Shake Shack junkie.  As it was, I needed to get on with the business of why I really came to Washington.

This is as close as they let me get

This is as close as they let me get

The fact is, I have had my medical insurance cancelled due to the ACA.  All I did was raise my deductible way back in 2010 and – whammo! – they cancelled me this year.  Lots of people In Washington had assured me that if I like my policy I could keep it, so I decided I’d go right to the horse’s …. mouth to get some answers.  I started with the White House.  We had requested a tour and I thought perhaps I could just ever so briefly pop into the Oval Office to see if the President would hear me out.  Unfortunately, they told us that they weren’t giving tours that day.  The picture (left) is as close as I got to the Oval Office.  I was going to shout my questions across the lawn but there were some men on the business end of a some weaponry patrolling the perimeter.    They looked like they had had a lot of experience with “kooks”.  I decided to look elsewhere for answers, which brought us to the National Archives.  Nothing like a little bolstering from the Founding Fathers.  I’m not sure they ever had to deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield, but they seemed to be pretty far-sighted on a number of issues so I thought they might also have some insight on deductibles.  Turns out, the line to see the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and the Constitution was the longest we waited in all week.   After 45 minutes we finally were let into the rotunda where the three documents are displayed.  It is somewhat surreal to see them in person, although “see” might be stretching it a bit  For example, the Declaration of Independence was kept in a west-facing window for over 40 years and was thereafter subjected to flash photography until 2012.  So unfortunately it is so faded that unless someone told you you were looking at the Declaration of Independence, you might think you’re looking at an estimate for getting your car repaired.  Still, to see the founding documents is a real thrill and inspired me to continue on my quest.

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By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

“Where the wind comes whistling down the plain” … Oscar Hammerstein. 


I swear this is what the wind felt like

Never let it be said that Mr. Hammerstein wasn’t the very essence of understatement.  Hays, Kansas was the next stop on our journey to Kansas City.  It is the largest city in western Kansas, boasting a population of over 20,000 hearty people and no Starbucks.  As we drove up to the hotel we made the “rookie” error of facing the car into the wind.  As it turns out, there was a tornado watch in effect.  I had to use both arms to push the car door open, and then attempt a quick exit before the door could swing back and crush me.  Welcome to Kansas.  Once in the lobby, my husband casually asked the clerk if the hotel had a storm shelter.  “Well, no,” she chirped, “everyone just crowds into the laundry room.”  My husband paled.  “So..”, he asked, “you must not have many guests staying here tonight.”  After a quick consult with her computer she looked up and said brightly, “Well, actually we’re almost full so if we do have a tornado some people will just have to take shelter under the stairwell.”  We slept with one eye open and one foot on the floor.  In the event of disaster we were going to be the first people wedged between the washer and dryer.

As we left Hays the next morning, bleary-eyed from our own “tornado watch” and no Starbucks, we were dismayed to see that the scenery had not improved overnight.  I could write about how very boring the drive was but then that would make for a pretty boring post.  Let me just leave it at this:  If ever you get the wild idea to drive through western Kansas – DON”T.

Luckily, 90 minutes down the road is the city of Salina, which not only HAS a Starbucks but is the demarkation point for where the terrain changes.  I don’t think those two things are related but you never know.  Within the space of a mile, suddenly the flat, dry plain became luscious, rolling  green hills.  As we made our way toward Kansas City the vistas became more beautiful, until we finally arrived at our destination – Leawood, Kansas – home to our newly-relocated family.

Wendy's Fountain

A typical neighborhood fountain

We set out immediately to get to know the area.  First of all, Kansas City is known as “the city of fountains”.  This picture (right) is on our daughter’s home street and is pretty typical of the neighborhood fountains.  Both my husband and I come from California and have seen some pretty fancy neighborhoods but we both agreed that we have never seen so many contiguous miles of beautiful homes.  These places were so big they would make Donald Trump happy.  There are parks everywhere and wide boulevards with medians filled with huge trees, colorful flowers and, yes, more fountains. No less a journalist than Edward R. Murrow once described Kansas City as “the Paris of the Plains”.  Alas, that was not due to its beauty or the meandering river that runs through the center of town.  He was referring to the fact that during the heyday of Prohibition, Kansas City had a  reputation for debauchery.  Thanks to its corrupt police commissioner, not a single citizen was convicted of manufacturing, transporting, selling or even possessing booze during the 13-year period when alcohol was banned nationwide.The wide-open party town attracted both the criminal and the creative, including jazz musicians who made the city one of the most exciting of the time. At the height of Kansas City’s heyday in the 1930s, there were more than 100 jazz clubs hosting performances and jam sessions that would launch the careers of musicians such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker.


The Plaza – bring your credit card


Today things are a bit more sedate.  The crown jewel of the city is Country Club Plaza, or just “The Plaza”.  It was the first shopping center in the world designed to accommodate shoppers arriving by automobile.  It was patterned architecturally after Seville, Spain, with wide streets, tiled roofs and, you guessed it, more fountains.  Even the chain stores and restaurants somehow look better here, which shows you what a good city planner can wrestle from a monolithic corporation.  For example, the outside eating area of the Cheesecake Factory is in a cobble-stoned courtyard, planted with fabulous flowers and of course, the requisite fountain.  I think the beautiful surroundings might make you forget that you’re ingesting a 2,000 calorie salad.  There is every store imaginable on The Plaza but one that is truly unique to Kansas City is Hall’s.  As in Hallmark Cards, which happens to be headquartered in Kansas City.  Hall’s is so upscale that their motto ought to be “where you care to spend the very most”.  The influence of the Hallmark corporation is everywhere and suffice it to say that every gas station and grocery store have displays of Hallmark Cards that would make one of our local Gold Crown stores weep.


2013-06-08 11.42.27
Here we are with Jack Stack’s bull

 But the real reason to visit Kansas City is to eat some of its famous barbecue.  Our kids suggested that we go to Jack Stack BBQ, which has been in business for over 50years.  “Diet” and “BBQ” do not intersect at Jack Stack.  We started with their baked onion rings.  “Baked”  means low-cal, right?  I further deluded myself into ordering the baby back ribs, on the theory there wouldn’t be as much meat on them as a half-pound burger.  Delicious doesn’t begin to cover it. Instead of the greasy, drippy ribs I’m used to, these were succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a smokey flavor.  I would have licked the plate if there weren’t so many people around.  Hell, I would have licked the plate with so many people around but I thought setting a good example for our grandsons was paramount.  I discovered that Jack Stack has a mail order division that ships anywhere.  I think I’m in big trouble.


We left for home the following day, still longing to see more of KC, and with what can only be described as a “rib hangover”.  We’ll have to save further exploration for our next trip.  Which – make no mistake – we will do by plane.  We were thoroughly impressed by the city and its surroundings.  Although we have both traveled to most large U.S. cities for either business or pleasure, neither of us had ever heard of Kansas City as a place to visit.  As our son-on-law so accurately said, “Kansas City isn’t just below the radar, it isn’t even on the radar.”  Whatever the reason, we were happy to discover this charming, beautiful city. As Dorothy once said, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” and we’re sorry we’re not.