Grand Ole Time in Nashville: Day 6

Grand Ole Opry

Yvette Mendoza

Notable country music shines through the streets of Nashville that lead us to the Grand Ole Opry, where many iconic country artists have walked through the halls of this music venue and have done outstanding performances; we were excited to see it all.

Taking a tour allowed us to see the behind-the-scenes as well as the history embedded through the halls of the Grand Ole Opry.

Beginning in 1943, when the Grand Ole Opry would have been originally broadcasted from the Ryman Auditorium, every show was continuously sold out. Not having enough seats in the arena turned away fans, and they finally decided in 1974 to build their own venue, one that is twice as large, holding more than 440,000 country lovin’ fanatics.

Roy Acuff, the “King of Country ,” performed at almost every show. In his later life he resided on the property of the Opry. Although Roy was a frequent performer, there were many other phenomenal artists that totaled 223 members of the Opry which include, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Gene Watson (recently at the Old Town Theatre!), and Darius Rucker. 

Walking through the entrance of the auditorium, we saw country decor everywhere–including the ceiling, which had $90,000 Gibson guitars floating above us.

And backstage was more unique and different adornments. There were two massive-size portraits of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff, and a semi-cluttered scene of music stands and microphones in one section. 

Continuing our walk through the back, we saw the mailboxes and placards for each member of the Opry. Dolly Parton had a box full of fan mail waiting to be opened.

As for the wall full of placards for each member, they were all gold plated.

Right around the corner would be the 23 dressing rooms, all having their own theme and specific photos of celebrities in each of them.

The significant rooms that were favored by the LEAP Ambassadors were Roy Acuff’s dedication room, the veterans’ room, and the glitteriest room #19 (Dolly’s chosen dressing room).

Each artist performing could choose whichever room they desire, but celebrities were mainly gathered in the “Family Room” located outside of the dressing rooms. This middle room had plenty of seating and a beautiful Archie Campbell mural to admire the Opry and Hee Haw cast that shot 13 episodes on stage. 

Topping off our tour, we became country music legends being able to walk into the infamous circle on the center stage. The Grand Ole Opry gave a true sense of Nashville music and culture. In the city of country music, we now know where to “get our honky tonk on”.

Lunch and Belle Meade

Jessica Cuevas

After having our grand debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage, where the city Nashville’s music lives, we headed over to the historic Belle Meade Mansion and Winery.

The inside of the grand carriage house has been redesigned into a nice, neat country styled kitchen and dining area where we were greeted with servers and had a wonderful three-course meal. Our appetizer was a salad that consisted of spinach leaves garnished with berries, walnuts, goat cheese, and topped off with a balsamic dressing. The entrée was a plate of chicken, green beans, red skin mashed potato, and a corn-flour pancake.

As for dessert we had Tennessee style peach cobbler.

While we waited for the rest of our tour group to finish up their meal, we ventured off into the stable right across where the horses would have been held near the carriage house.

In there, were displayed a variety of different carriages that would have been used in the 19th century.

John Harding, husband of Selene Jackson, had The Belle Meade, a two-story federal home constructed in 1819. His son, William Giles Harding’s additions to the home transformed it into the Greek Revival styled home we saw today. Upon entering we quickly noticed many similarities and differences to General Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, such as the grand entrance hallway with a spiral staircase.

Belle Meade has hosted many important people from our history such as Davy Crockett, General Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, President Cleveland, and even Sam Houston!

Morgan’s favorite room was the Parlor room where the weddings and funerals would be held with the last event being William Harding Jr. (“little Billy’s”) funeral. Similar to the Hermitage having received many visitors and having a place for them to stay and eat, so did Belle Meade. In fact, they placed a ruby red stained glass above the front door on the first and second floors that was indicated as a symbol to let others know not only that they are wealthy but also that they could seek refuge in this home, which Yvette found extremely interesting. My favorite room was the library, specifically the hooves of the great sire Bonnie Scotland, the horse of General William Harding, being featured as ink wells as a memoir. I learned that from this sire came 11 of the 13 triple crown winners such as Sea Biscuit, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and eight others.

This home would be in the family for three generations before it would be sold to the state who would then sell it to the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee.

Once we toured the home, we played bocce, cornhole, and putt putt golf.

Despite there being a sign that read “the loser buys ice cream” we played for fun before heading to what once was the chicken coop but has since then been repurposed to be their Coop ‘N Scoop Ice Cream and Home-Made Fudge Shop. Yvette got the Strawberry flavored ice cream and Morgan had the Peach ice cream drizzled with chocolate blackberry wine sauce. As for me, I got the cookies and cream flavored ice cream on a sugar cone. 

Assembly Food Hall

Morgan Robertson

To wrap up our day we ventured to a food court style establishment, complete with live music and many different food choices. Assembly Food Hall right in the heart of Downtown Nashville, is the perfect place for people with different food interests. For example, our choices ranged from brick oven margherita pizza for Yvette, pepperoni pizza for Jessica, chicken sausage for Stephanie, crepes for Professor Yawn, and a Hawaiian poke bowl for me. 

Our wide variety allowed for some good conversation over good food, but another interesting aspect extended to the architecture of some buildings. When the city was still being established, the architects would try and emulate the designs and styles they wanted to reflect in their city. Nashville clearly wanted to present itself as a grand city with classical architecture. Many of the older churches are done in Victorian or gothic styles which gives a major contrast to the night life on fifth street. 

We were in fact lucky enough to make our way into the former train station in Nashville, now a refurbished hotel. The building represents the day-to-day bustle and travel in and out of the city. The gothic exterior quickly transforms into a grand entryway with high ceilings covered with stain glass paneling. Most Likely for decor now, there is a very prominent clock visible from almost every point in the lobby, which at one time was a crucial part in people’s travel. 

Our meal and brief train station tour gave insight of the past and today’s very lively and loud present of Nashville.

Top of the World in Nashville: Day 5

July 11, 2021

Morgan Robertson

Once again, waking up to a rainy morning, the LEAP Ambassadors made their way to join the next bus of SLC attendees headed towards the TN State Museum and the local Farmers market. 

The Nashville farmers market brings aspects of a traditional market setting and scenes of trendy modern aspects. Greeted by the “I heart NASH” sign, we took advantage of the photo-op and posed with our first Nashville sign.

The first room we entered resembled a food court type area full of enticing smells.

Almost magnetically drawn to the nearest coffee vendor, we begin to look over the menu of Farm City Coffee. As opposed to a traditional coffee house, the coffees and blends seemed to represent local and floral flavors. Yvette got some bubble tea.

The coffee and tea were nice additions to the afternoon as we continued to explore around the rest of the market. 

The Exterior market resembled a more traditional look, with a pitched tent covering the different tables adorned with homegrown and homemade goods, it was difficult to not stop and smell or gaze at everything. Booths ranging from veggies, to handcrafted jewelry, candles, soaps, and pottery; there were choices for everyone. 

Rounding out of adventure, we stopped at a local ice cream joint, Jeni’s, for a sweet treat. Again the flavors seemed to represent the local feel and personality of Nashville. The homemade waffle cones became a favorite at the table, which surprised members who usually prefer cups to cones. Our flavor choices ranged from brambleberry, rocketpop (blueberry and pineapple), wild lavender, salted caramel, and peanut butter. 

Pressed for time, we absorbed all that we could and made our way back, leaving the farmers market with light and fresh spirits. 

Of course, we also spent some time at the state historical museum, which was nice because we had all visited the Bullock Museum in Texas, giving us a limited chance to compare the venues.

TN has a rich history, much like Texas. In fact, many of those histories overlap. We were provided an overview of TN history….

…that ranged from the first people in TN…

…to the modern day. Along the way, of course, we learned about pioneers…

…Andy Jackson (building on our trip to the Hermitage)…

…President James Polk (under whose Presidency Texas was admitted to the Union)….

…state heroes such as Alvin York; the unfortunate Jim Crow era, which afflicted much or all of the south…

…and even more about the great Sam Houston!

It was a nice museum, with the opportunity for much learning!

Pucketts BBQ

Yvette Mendoza

Coming from Texas we sure know BBQ is a phenomenon so of course we decided to give another southern state a try. At Nashville’s local Puckett’s the busy downtown scene seemed to filter over into the restaurant itself. Morgan and Ms. Stephanie went to pick up the food, to eat back at the hotel for a quieter lunch. With high expectations we opened the to-go boxes and gave Tennessee BBQ a try.  Eating southern classics gave us an opportunity to try pulled pork, philly cheese steak, and chicken salad on a sourdough bun.

As for our sides, everyone went with boring french fries, but I decided to try the coleslaw and the skillet mac and cheese, which were both creamy and filling by itself.

With each menu item being appetizing, we found the Nashville HOT BBQ sauce gave us the true taste of Tennessee. The BBQ at Puckett’s can definitely hold its own compared to Texas BBQ, but as for the 3 Texans we sure do love our BBQ.  

Family Night at TopGolf

Jessica Cuevas

All LEAP Ambassadors have had different experiences at playing golf, with me having the skills of a novice: this would be my first time, not only at a Top Golf, but also playing golf in general. Yvette, whose skills were more advanced than mine, taught me the “proper” way to hold a golf club, how far back to swing and stand from the tee, and even about the different types of clubs.

They have clubs for right and left-handed people and ones specifically for men or women. The golf clubs range from irons, which are better for short distances, to woods, which are recommended for longer distances.

Our first round was for us to practice hitting the balls and for me to get an idea of how to play before participating in a competitive manner. I used the 8-iron golf club, 3 hybrid, and the 3 wood to get a feel of different clubs but found the hybrid and wood more efficient.

Once everyone got in a few practice shots, the real game began. Yvette, Morgan, and I to just play for fun, but we all knew we were “secretly” playing to outdo the others.

We cheered each other on for hitting the ball, which as a novice was an accomplishment in itself, and when we hit the red, yellow, and green nets. My first round was the best out of the two, call it beginner’s luck, since I placed second with 31 points, 18 points more than my score on the second round. Morgan’s best round was also the first, with 50 points, and Yvette’s best round was the second where she scored about 40 points. Ms. Stephanie scored the highest of us all, leaving us impressed with her golfing skills.

Before we had our own bay to play at, we had delightful Tex-Mex cuisine with chicken or steak fajitas, white cilantro rice, and black beans, with a variety of sides to add on ranging from shredded cheese, red garden salsa, creamy queso, guacamole, sour cream and much more.

There were even donut holes that you could inject different fillings such as raspberry syrup and chocolate chip cookies for dessert–all of which satisfied our sweet tooth.

Family night at TopGolf was much more fun than I would have anticipated, and we all had a good time. We met two couples, one of whom played golf with us. Their jobs ranged from elected official (state representative) to business owners, and they were all nice and companionable. This, along with the fun and food, made for a very successful night.

Smoky Mountain Rain: Day 3

Lunch at The Farmhouse Mercantile & Coffee Bar and Cosmic Blast Off food truck, Jessica Cuevas

In the antique style strip mall in Sylva, North Carolina we walked into a warm and cozy coffee shop, The Farmhouse Mercantile & Coffee Bar. walking in was relaxing and aesthetically pleasing, as our eyes roamed over all the decor and furniture. Everything from the restrooms to the chairs were done in contemporary country style. Even on the counter, where we began to order, was displayed a Yama cold drip tower. Feeling a bit adventurous, Yvette, despite not liking coffee, tried the London Fog; Morgan ordered the White Chocolate Mocha, and I went with my usual order of a Mocha Frappuccino.

We then boarded a rocket and were blasted off to the Cosmic Blast Off food truck and ordered the heaviest food anyone could get prior to a hike. Nonetheless, I ordered the Bronco Burger, the local favorite Blast Off Burger for Yvette, the Sweet Potato Quesadilla for Morgan. Each burger was freshly grilled and had the proper amount of juiciness. As for the quesadilla, it had a southwest flavor and a dash of sweetness from the potatoes. We then topped it off with hand-cut French fries, which added a pleasing salty finish to our meal.

We ate all this during a “parking-lot picnic,” one with a view!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Morgan Robertson

Despite it being a rainy day, we did not let it get in the way of embarking on our journey through the Great Smoky Mountains. After a caffeine kick off from a trendy coffee house, and lunch from a local food truck, we made our way further into the mountains. The more we drove up the curvy mountainous roads, the wider my smile became. This being my first national park, it is now the my basis of comparison for other park visits. 

There are a total of six entrances to the GSMNP, a park that spans over a total of 800 square miles. 

We did not see the entire Park, but what we did see was truly amazing. Winding roads led us past flowing creeks, enormous mountains, countless trailheads, some random wildlife…

…and much more. The GSMNP straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, and we traversed this boundary from East (NC) to West (TN)…

… amazed by the size and beauty of the Park.

After spending some time testing our rock-climbing abilities…

…and of course snapping pictures, we faced the hike to the tallest point in the park: Clingmans Dome.

The girls begin the “hike” up Clingmann’s Dome

Embarking on mine and Jessica’s first National Park hike, I shifted my gaze upward at the steep incline of the paved trail. Seeing the variety of trees, quickly moving fog, and the crisp cool breeze of wind helped keep us motivated to make it to the top.

One of the most interesting parts to me was an entrance to the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail. Stepping foot past the sign, I can now say that I have walked on the famous Appalachian Trail.

Peaking around the corner, was a winding cement trail that led to the top of Clingmans Dome observatory platform.

The LEAP Ambassadors were rejoicing when we knew we had made it to the top!

Eventually (editor’s note: an hour later…), we made it down from the top of the dome…

…feeling a little exulted that we accomplished mile-long, round-trip hike.

We also stopped at the Rockefeller Monument, where FDR, in 1940, dedicated the Park.

…part of our ongoing learning about the Park System and its creation. Here, we also had a chance to take another few steps on the Appalachian Trail…

…although we certainly made no attempt to get to Maine, the trail’s end!

Alongside the road were what seemed like hundreds of different lookout points. Wanting to stop at each one, I was reminded by Professor Yawn, who is more familiar with the park, that there are a vast number of exceptional sights to see, and that we had to keep moving. My personal favorite part of the parks is not found high up in the tree line but lying low rushing through the various pebbles and boulders were the sparkling rivers and creeks of the GSMNP.

This immediately sparked a child-like freedom in me to want to run, splash, and slip on the rocks. Finding pure bliss amongst the time old smooth river rocks and swirling currents, I admired the great creation that is the GSMNP. Of course, proceeding with caution, Yvette, Jessica, and I were able to pursue our adventurous personalities, while listening to the babbling waters which brought relaxing mindsets.

As I felt the crisp cool waters rush through my toes, I stared at the pebbles and rocks under my feet thinking of how long they had resided there. 

Surrounding the rivers and adorned with green trees, the vast mountains stand on a scale all to their own. With the day’s weather we were able to see great depth to the fog-covered mountain tops, breathing in every aspect of the enormous Mountains, it was difficult to focus on just one part.

Yvette even described one particular lookout as “not even looking real” but more as something that had been hand painted.

The worst part was tearing my gaze away from the perfect sights and heading back towards the van. Although my spirits were immediately lifted when the next amazing sight was viewable. In its entirety the park and especially the mountains seem intimidating but taking in piece by piece allows for a deeper understanding of the park.

Concluding our journey, we finished with a riverside picnic of turkey and chicken sandwiches, fruits, and chips.

Eating as quickly as I could while still enjoying the fun dinner with Yvette and Jessica…

…I emptied my pockets once again to run into the river. This time I ventured farther into the cold water and slick stones and ungracefully made my way to a semi-dry rock in the middle to enjoy the view. After receiving a whistle and a wave signaling it was time to come back, I continued my trek across the river to the other side and ended up across the bridge.  

With just a little time left, we still had time for more adventure, though, and we made the most of it. First, we saw more wildlife…

…including, in what was a highlight of the trip, a fairly close encounter with a bear. This bear was lurking near a path that we were traversing, and it popped its head out several times to get a better look at us!

We were amazed, while also being grateful that the momma bear, wherever she was, felt no need to intrude.

This left us with a fairly peaceful enjoyment of a nearby waterfall.

Living up to every possible expectation, the GSMNP was and will always be one of my favorite places on Earth. Completely amazed by the wildlife, greenery, and rivers I left the park with a whole new mind set and appreciation for nature. 

Postscript: On the way out of the Park, and in the spirit of seeing more mountainous peaks, we had to stop at the Sevierville County Courthouse and get a photo with Dolly Parton.

Nashville, by way of Asheville

Starting the Day, Morgan Robertson

On day 2 of our Southern Legislative Conference trip, LEAP Ambassadors headed towards Martin Luther King’s Grave.

The plaza-like set up displays numerous quotes from Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. himself. The emphasis on nonviolence is displayed on nearly every aspect of the memorial, to remind viewers of the efforts taken to ensure constitutional rights for all.  

On the left-hand side there are the six principles of nonviolence on the stone wall. In the middle of the memorial and in the middle of the reflecting pool stands the tomb for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, each inscribed with a bible verse. Surrounding his grave was the cascading water with words from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to the murals of MLK on the back wall, the memorial stands to show the real change that has happened. 

Along Sunset Avenue is the Ebenezer Baptist Church that MLK frequently preached at, as well as the museum dedicated to him. Across the street stands the MLK national historic park, that is complemented with an array of multicolored roses.

In need of some coffee, we stopped at the Chrome Yellow Trading Co. coffee shop before heading to Asheville. The selected coffees for this day were a little different relative to our normal choices, two vanilla bourbon lattes (hot and iced) and just a regular drip coffee. At first the flavor of the iced vanilla bourbon latte was almost too much, but after drinking it for a while it was much more enjoyable. With this group of LEAP Ambassadors, and myself more specifically, coffee has become a recurring topic of conversation. Usually discussing the flavor, method in which it is brewed, and the strength of the coffee we continue learning more about each other’s preferred taste in coffee.

Lunch in Athens, Yvette Mendoza

After getting a boost of caffeine we made a quick stop in Athens, Georgia where we came across a pleasant-looking restaurant that was nestled in between the Courthouse and the City Hall. The interior of South Kitchen + Bar boasted intricate details, suggesting the craftsmanship of an earlier time. There were Corinthian columns inside, stained-glass windows, recessed ceilings, and black, red, and white Greek-inspired tiling.

Although the Architecture and decor may have been Greek themed, the food was pure southern comfort. For appetizers, we chose a hummus and trout dip that were both served with fried pita chips.

Both dips are a variety of different vegetables that consist of radish, cucumbers, carrots, pickles, and lemon zest. While each LEAP Ambassador chose their own meal, we all had a similar dish of it being a type of sandwich. Jessica’s was a chicken salad croissant…

…Morgan’s choice was a portobello dip…

…and I had a grilled pimento cheese BLT on sourdough bread.

Each dish had such immaculate flavors from their meat and toppings garnished within the sandwiches. We enjoyed eating a dash of the south while admiring the Greek revival architecture.

Biltmore Estate, Jessica Cuevas

The LEAP ambassadors were excited to travel to Asheville, North Carolina and add another state to our list of states visited, while also visiting another historic home. And what a home the Biltmore was!

The home was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt for the Vanderbilt family, whose railroad investments allowed George Washington Vanderbilt II to buy the land have this majestic home constructed.

Entering into a massive living area, which was almost completely covered with greenery, we stared with complete disbelief at the size and beauty of the room.

The high ceiling lined with windows allowed sunlight to flood in and perfectly accent the room. After learning that there are a total of 250 rooms in the Estate, it seemed impossible to make it through the tour. In the end, we saw about 40 rooms that were perfectly presented and frozen in time. Yvette commented on how the rooms were so majestic that it looked as though it had come out of a Disney film, when in reality the films could possibly have been based on the Biltmore rooms. The architect of the Estate, Richard Morris Hunt, so clearly put an immense amount of effort into each aspect of the Estate. Hunt even kept the salon closed off, hidden away from Mr. Vanderbilt’s eyes, until it was nothing short of perfection.

Mr. Vanderbilt had a near life size portrait of Hunt commissioned for the Estate itself, which shows his respect and adoration for constructing such a beautiful home. 

Architect Richard Morris Hunt (Left) and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Right)

Everyone was impressed by Mr. Vanderbilt’s Library, but it was my absolute favorite out of all the rooms we were able to see.

It was a grand room, but somehow maintained a cozy feel, and the ceiling was a trompe l’oeil masterprice.

Yvette appreciated the oval shaped design and colors of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s room, royal purple and gold, that represented her status as one of the wealthiest ladies in the U.S.

Morgan’s favorite room was the “children’s bedroom” which was cute in design and had two small twin size beds, a contrast to the other rooms since the majority had Queen-King size beds except for the servants’ quarters. Professor Yawn’s favorite room was the grand hall…

…with its many art pieces and grand organ.

Actually, though, any of the rooms could have been our favorite; they were all beautiful.

Probably the most astounding or shocking room was found to be the two-lane bowling alley.

This bowling alley could have quite possibly been one of the first installed in a private home in America. The lower and basement floors, where the servants stayed away from guests and family, were quite humbling compared to the main house. The basement really gave a clear perspective on the different worlds that lived and worked under the same roof. 

Once we toured as much of the house as we possibly could, we were able to now admire the home’s exterior.

The grounds, which now encompass about 8,000 acres, are incomparable, with statuary and beautiful gardens.

And to no one’s surprise, the gardens were just as vast as they were exquisite. Making connections from yesterday, Morgan was curious to know how it compared to our visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. They have multiple gardens that were all super beautiful and blooming that included roses, bushes, different kinds of trees and vines, koi ponds and much more.

Yvette commented that a horse or a golf cart would be nice for viewing the grounds of the Estate. 

We fell in love with how majestic and architecturally beautiful the Biltmore House is and its landscape that is as unrealistic as it may sound. We dreamed of what our lives would have been like in the Biltmore Estate in the 1800s. Where most Americans were living simplistic lives, life in the Biltmore would have been unsurpassed luxury. 

Dinner at Corner Kitchen, Yvette Mendoza

The Corner Kitchen, located a few miles from the Biltmore Estate, is set in a Victorian village of shops and restaurants. Before eating, we took a walk around the village, where we observed the beautiful style Victorian designed shops and restaurants. As we noticed the Victorian architecture, we also observed every store was alike from the outside, all having the same tones of brown and steep, gabled roofs which gave an elegant, uniformed look. The Corner Kitchen also adopted this look, and it was here where we were seated for what would turn out to be a fantastic meal!

We were seated outside, where we had a lovely view of the gazebo with vibrantly green vine like plants growing above us. Our waiter was vividly descriptive vividly described the menu. From the appetizers and entrees to the desserts, everything sounded fresh and overflowing with flavor. The waiter started us off with a cucumber garnished with a balsamic vinaigrette, topped with a cherry tomato and goat cheese, which is interestingly referred as a French amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”).

We then ordered an assortment of different types of meats and salads that were all unique. As for the meats, each one of us got either duck, smoked salmon, tarragon salmon, or steak.

The duck was like steak but presented a different flavor, the texture would be soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Whereas the steak was cooked medium and flavored with the perfect amount of seasoning that came with potato crisp marinated in oil that were then sauteed. Lastly, the two orders of salmon were garnished with pink and purple flowers or a fresh ball of mozzarella. The mozzarella quickly became a favorite for the group, with its excellent fresh taste and smoothness in every bite.

Each item on the menu is fresh and local therefore they will not have every dish all year around. Their desserts are a great example of having fresh fruits and ingredients. All their pastries are handmade in their restaurant and their sister restaurant, Chestnut. We tried an assortment of their pastries: pear chocolate brownie with ginger ice cream, blueberry cheesecake, key lime tart topped with fresh fruit, and chocolate peanut butter pot au creme.

As each LEAP Ambassador tried each dessert item it was quickly gone before our eyes could see. Each one of them tasted like heaven, which was a “berry” great way to top off our night!

WAC Returns: Robert Gates and the World

After more than one year of COVID lockdown, the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston returned with an in-person event, one featuring former Secretary of Defense, former Deputy National Security Advisor, and former CIA Director (not to mention President of Boy Scouts and President of TAMU). Approximately 100 people attended this event, with many more tuning in live.

The Executive Director of WAC, Maryanne Maldonado, welcomed guests; she was followed by Board Chair Mark Anderson

… who introduced Robert Gates, a potentially lengthy process, given Gates’ extensive experience. Indeed, Gates’ almost unparalleled resume in foreign affairs was on full display during the hour-long session. Expertly hosted by WAC’s Ronan O’Malley…

…the discussion highlighted concerns over Iran’s quest for nuclear power while focusing on the activities of Russia and China.

Gates was convinced that, whatever one thinks of the original Obama-era deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, that deal is now obsolete. He encouraged the resumption of talks, but made it clear that events had surpassed what was agreed in to 2015, and a new approach will be called for.

Gates clearly has little regard for Vlad Putin, regarding him as a nationalistic holdover from USSR days. But he is more concerned about China, which he believes has surpassed Russia in both economic and intelligence capacities. Fortunately, China and Russia’s alliance is mostly superficial, primarily based on a desire to the US perform poorly.

Previously, Gates has expressed much warmth toward Joe Biden, albeit balanced by little confidence in the President’s decision-making capacities. He noted that he stood by those judgments, reminding people that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last four decades.” Biden, Gates noted, thought the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s would lead to improved civil rights records in Iran; he opposed aid to South Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War; he opposed to most of the weapon systems that brought the US to military dominance; and perhaps most tellingly, he opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Having said that, though, Gates has also indicated that the President is “impossible not to like,” is a man of great integrity, and is reliable. Moreover, he expressed optimism about many of Biden’s early moves and decisions, and he was impressed with Biden’s team of advisors.

Gates was, as usual, sharp and incisivie, but the real treat was getting back to an in-person WAC event. We had a chance to see old friends such as Ronan O’Malley, Jahan Jafarpour, Viridiana Otamendi, Sandija Bayot, and Maryanne Maldonado. In addition, we ran into another old friend: Ambassador Chase Untermeyer. Ambassador Untermeyer previous served as Ambassador to Qater, Texas Legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Director of White House Personnel.

Feeling a bit more knowledgeable and worldly following the World Affairs Council event, we ended the evening with Ethiopian Food in a nearby restaurant by the name of Blue Nile. At Blue Nile they had a vast variety of dishes ranging from vegetarian, lamb, beef, and poultry, with the option of making each of them spicier with Ethiopian spices.

As an appetizer we had a beef and a vegetarian Sambus, it is like an empanada, and to my surprise the vegetarian was my favorite despite never having tried lentils, with which the Sambusas are stuffed.

For dinner Quinn ordered the Yessiga Wot, a beef dish cooked in their Berebere sauce, I had the beef tibs, beef cubes cooked with vegetables and spices, Ms. Stephanie had the chicken tibs, and Professor Yawn had the Spicy Doro Wot, a popular traditional chicken dish.

All the dishes were served with Injera, a spongy bread the size of a flour burrito tortilla that is used as a tortilla to eat the food. 

It is a tradition for LEAP students to try new cuisines that are themed related to the prior event and, as expected, it was my first time eating Ethiopian Food (Quinn’s too). It is always nice to end our day trying something new.

Independence Day in Huntsville, Texas

The City of Huntsville knows how to put on a party–especially a birthday party. In this case, it was the nation’s 245th birthday. To celebrate, the City’s Parks and Leisure department offered residents numerous activities, including rock-wall climbing, mechanical bull riding, face-painting, balloon art, dunk-the-local celebrity, watermelon-eating contests, numerous vendors providing food and fourth-of-July fare, and more.

Parks Director Penny Joiner Welcomes Residents to the Independence Day Celebration

Residents had their pick of activities. One of the most popular was the bull-riding, which could be adapted for the participant’s age (and fear). Kids often took a ride on the bull, then headed straight for the line again, to go at it another time. Of course, some adults found the fun irresistible, too.

When kids weren’t on the bull, they headed to the rockwall, where the goal was to climb to the top and ring the bell. A few made it!

Not all the kids made it all the way up, but they had fun, with staff lending encouraging words.

The crowd size was steady, peaking around five-thirty, but was never so large as to be overwhelming or intrude on the fun.

If residents got tired or hungry, there were vendors on hand to stem the cravings.

And every forty-five minutes, there was a watermelon-eating contest to occupy the crowd, either by participating or enjoying the show.

The good news is no one got sick! The better news is that everyone had fun.

Of course, even with all the fun, sometimes the agony of defeat was difficult to handle.

Of course, there was always staff on hand watching over things…

…or providing instructions…

But a lot of the fun was just seeing people who were enjoying themselves.

If people needed a break, there was a coloring booth, which occupied many.

And if people were feeling feisty, they could attempt to “dunk the local celebrity,” which included folks such as KSAM’s Glenn Edwards, the City of Huntsville’s Deputy City Manager Rick Rudometkin, and the City’s Chief of the Fire Department, Greg Mathis. Greg was dunked the most, perhaps because he had the most fun with the participants.

It was a great day, spearheaded by Penny Joiner, Kristy Wheeler, and with help from many other City of Huntsville staff, including intern Jade Jones.