Fredricksburg has always seemed rather a poodle-like town. Highly mannered and manicured as befits a town founded by disciplined German settlers whose inner agenda was to replicate the Deutschland in the most unlikely of places, frontier Texas.
But nothing in nature is just two-dimensional, no matter how much we humans try to pack it into a neat box. Good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, poodle or pound puppy.
Wine & Fredericksburg – a profitable pairing
Like a poodle, Fredericksburg is very canny and durable, no matter how it is coiffed. Take wine for example. As Texas has discovered her grape-growing prowess, wineries start popping up on Highway 290 just past Austin. And wine is a good partner to a town that depends on a tourist more easily whipping out that credit card at boutiques and restaurants. But keep reading. There is so much more to Fredericksburg.
As 290 merges into Highway 281 for the seven miles to Johnson City, the Arc de Texas, a tall, blocky homage to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, advertises wine and 20-mile views from a high hill. Not a bad place to stop and orient yourself before heading west, unless you are dragging a travel trailer. If you are hauling like us, the steep driveway will wipe out any mellow the wine gives you.
Once 290 parts company with 281 and heads west to Fredericksburg, the wineries get more and more dense. Since we were here on the Memorial Day holiday, packed wine busses darted on and off 290 like mockingbirds attracted by a shiny.
After setting up camp, an uplifting passtime
For this visit, the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park RV Camp is our base. By the time we set up at the hottest time of the day (3:30p), the only thing we wanted was a cold beer under a shade tree. The antique shops, boutiques and wineries would have to wait.
What couldn’t wait was a visit to the Officer’s Club at the Fredericksburg Airport, open only Thursday-Saturday. The airport is just across the fence from our Lady Bird Johnson camp area. That would be an easy walk if you were allowed to sprint across the runway. Still, it was fun watching the variety of small over and under wing planes taking off.
Where is John Wayne?
If camping in hot weather is more fun than you can take, you can also watch the planes from the balcony of the Hangar Hotel, built right off the runway. The hotel is in a two-story Quonset hut. A restored DC-3 perched on the lawn can be your landmark. Seeing the Duke striding past wouldn’t seem out of character.
The Hangar Hotel eschews the German gingerbread touches in favor of a more chaotic period – WWII. From the guest rooms to their diner to the Officer’s Club, the Hangar Hotel recreates life circa 1941-1945. The music and the furnishings take you back to the “live for today because tomorrow is uncertain” ambiance on a military airbase during wartime.
Is this how it was?
I’ve read my father-in-law’s letters to his mother while he was stationed in England in 1942 and before the B-17 he was piloting was shot down. I can imagine him, wearing his dashing flyer’s uniform, drinking in just such a club. A young man making memories. Those memories would sustain him during his 18-months in a German POW camp.
Molly and I sat at the bar, drinking vodka gimlets and listening to the conversations around us. A blind piano player in his eighties hammered out “As Time Goes By.” Men and women in dated military uniforms started clustering around us at the bar.
At first, we thought there was a costume party in the diner breaking up. Maybe these were laggard celebrants grabbing one last cocktail. But as we ease-dropped, we learned that this group was a mixture of active-duty Army, Marine and Navy personnel plus volunteers. They were participating in the infrequent combat zone reenactment at the Museum of the Pacific War.
We now had our focus from our first full day in Fredericksburg.
Museum of the Pacific War
Fredericksburg’s Museum of the Pacific War is phenomenal. Years ago, I wondered if it was a calculated decision to build a museum that concentrated on other aggressors in the second world war instead of Hitler’s invasions. But then I learned that Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in Chief of Pacific Ocean areas during World War II, grew up in Fredericksburg.
World War II’s Pacific theater is my frame of reference. My father enlisted in the Marines after Pearl Harbor. I was born at Camp Pendleton. I remember driving down a street named Tarawa but never knew the story of the battle it was named after. CincPAC was a term I heard often as a kid. This museum gave the backstory of the names and attitudes that I grew up around.
Experiencing – not just looking at combat
On this trip, we didn’t revisit the museum and instead went directly to the outdoor combat reenactment. Called the Pacific Combat Zone, it happens eight times a year in a two-acre battle zone. The area has been set up to resemble one of the dozens of beaches where Marines and soldiers fought in the endless island-hopping strategy. This tactic slowly brought the war back to the Japanese homeland – skirmish by agonizing skirmish.
The combat zone brought to life the exhibits in the air-conditioned museum two blocks away. For example, an active duty Marine outfitted a spectator in standard issue combat gear, pound by back-breaking pound. Add in sunny weather in the high 90’s and the demo soon became all too real.
Your helmet – don’t fight a war without it!
The Marine emcee also explained a key improvement from the last time the US had fought a world war. That was the steel helmet with detachable liner. In battle, it was protection. When not in battle, the liner kept the sun off your head while the steel outer shell did duty as a water bucket or latrine, depending on your need.
The evolution of infantry weapons
Army, Navy and Marine speakers walked us through the evolution of infantry weapons as if we were all raw recruits. After going over your gear, they briefed us about the initial M1-Garand to the Thompson machine gun and flame throwers.
We were given ear plugs and instructed to put them on for each demonstration. You felt the roar of the different guns in your gut. It was easy to empathize with a Texas farm boy who suddenly found himself far from his peaceful hill country home.
The entire country enlisted in WWII
Women portrayed the support roles that eighteen million females took up, both in the military and in the factories. I didn’t know that military nurses were some of the first POW’s in the Pacific.
A revelation hit me while I was watching. There had been little need of rhetoric to fire us up in WWII. Here was a clear threat to our freedom. An undeniable reason to sacrifice your life, or worse, the life of someone you loved, to protect our country. It was a humanitarian struggle for ourselves and others.
The nuanced reasons for war
Yet reenactment volunteers portrayed Japanese soldiers without rancor. And the museum gives good info on why Japan was so motivated to fight against us. After all, Japan had fought alongside us in WWI.
At the end of the program, the crowd clapped and hollered enthusiastically as each branch of the military was introduced. Then the US Army captain who was emceeing the program introduced the men who had portrayed the Japanese soldiers. The crowd wasn’t sure how to respond until the captain called them tenacious opponents. One warrior respecting another.
Remembering the reason for the holiday
I can’t think of a better way to have spent the Memorial Day Weekend.
Of course, we drank much wine and great German dark beer. We shopped and we partied under a Texas moon. Our Fredericksburg poodle-training kicked in. But what will stay with me on this visit is understanding that old hatreds can heal. And that should give comfort to us all.
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What unexpected adventures have you had somewhere? I’d love to hear from you.