Travel Log: A Proud Lion’s Road to Corvettes

Travel Log 2

(Dec. 10, 2017) Ok, I’m still in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Today, at the National Corvette Museum, shipmates and their ship were reunited far inland from the great waters where they roamed.

One of the personal missions I’ve taken on is symbolically letting my old ship, USS Ponce (LPD 15), see the country she spent 46 years protecting. I’ve got the two flags from her Quarterdeck and two fragments of wood from her well deck. Today I caught up with former Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Brian Hamilton at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green.

Brian’s story is an interesting one. I’d forgotten he’s as big a history buff as I am. We used to talk history during our days aboard the “Proud Lion” half a decade ago. My primary fields are the Civil War and the Revolutionary era; his are World Wars I and II. To make this even more interesting, Brian Hamilton is a descendant of Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War hero, first Secretary of the Treasury, ardent abolitionist, and father of the Navy’s sister sea service, the United States Coast Guard. Hamilton got out of the Navy after serving 8 years. Today’s he’s got his degree in history and works as a VA rep at the Western Kentucky University campus in Owensboro.

USS Ponce at National Corvette Museum
Former MM1 Brian Hamilton and retired MCC Nathanael “Sparky” Miller with the
Ponce flags and (in my left hand) well deck fragments.

The National Corvette Museum was a neat place for our mini-reunion as Hamilton is a car enthusiast himself. In other words, I had a ready-made tour guides who knows as much about cars as I do about Doctor Who. Frankly, the day passed way too fast!

We got to see a collection that included a 19th century stagecoach which ferried tourist to Mammoth Cave, early bicycles (the Wrights would have loved that part of the collection, and I got to play tour guide here for Brian and give him a bit of bicycle and Wright Brothers history), and even railroad artifacts. So ubiquitous in Kentucky history was the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) railroad that it managed to be part of the overall story the Corvette museum told.

The evolution of the Corvette itself from the early 1950s through the 21st century was stunning to see in real time. Forgive me, but modern Corvettes are nice and sleek…but give me a 1967 Corvette any day. Candy apple read. Or hunter green. Either will do. The lines on the older cars…well, I know they aren’t Aston Martins, but they make me think “James Bond” every time!

National Corvette Museum
A multi-image composite panorama of a display showing the evolution of the Corvette.

The museum itself gained some serious national attention in 2014 when Kentucky’s famous (infamous?) karst terrain bit back: a massive sinkhole opened up right under the museum’s signature Skydome area, swallowing eight priceless cars. Fortunately it all happened before the museum was open and only property was lost; no lives were injured or ended.

Karst terrain is formed by the erosion of limestone by water. Kentucky is riddled with karst from its days under ancient seas. Without ground-penetrating radar or other detection equipment, you might never know you put a multi-million dollar museum (house, bank, school, etc.) over a cave. Think about it; if a 20-foot high cave is underneath your building, and that cave’s roof is 30 feet thick or so, you might never know it’s there if you only dig down 10 or 15 feet to settle the foundation of your structure…unless/until the ground gives way under the weight of the building and a sinkhole opens up. The ground might have been weakened by the weight of the building, or a seismic disturbance, or a zombie apocalypse, but, whatever the cause, you now have a sudden shrinkage of usable floorspace because the floor is suddenly gone.

This is, using a very rough short hand, what happened to the museum in 2014. Eight cars were swallowed up, several of them completely beyond repair. Two have been restored so far (one of these is the 1,000,000th Corvette ever built). A third is on track to be restored. The other five are simply too far gone.

The museum considered trying to (pardon the pun) bury the story as they figured out how to fill in the sinkhole and repair and reopen the Skydome. Fortunately, they didn’t. They embraced it; after all it’s now part of Corvette lore. They put the damaged cars on display, outlined the sinkhole’s limits in the Skydome area, and created an exhibit on the geology of Kentucky’s karst terrain. In short they expanded their mission a bit into natural history and how it can impact our civilization. The result was a skyrocket in attendance.

Heck, I’m part of that. Had it not been for the sinkhole, I’d probably have never heard of, much less visited, the Corvette museum. But, reunion with my shipmate aside, I’m sure glad I did!

National Corvette Museum
A multi-image composite panorama of the cars damaged by the 2014 sinkhole.

Brian and I had coffee in the Corvette Cafe…and two hours passed so fast we were startled when the waitress told us the cafe had closed 20 minutes earlier! She was very kind and told us we could stay another fifteen minutes or so since she was sweeping up, but, we weren’t going to do that to her. We exited and made a second round of the museum.

Brian’s the first Ponce shipmate I’ve met up with since my reunion with three other shipmates on board Ponce following her decommissioning back in October. He’s also the first to hold the Ponce flags and well deck fragments with me in a photo.

We survived a very turbulent time on the ship when our commanding officer, Cmdr. Etta Jones, proved to be untrustworthy, unreliable, and unable to handle command. Sadly, she was the highest profile firing of a ship captain in 2011. I know; I was the Ponce’s public affairs officer back then and drafted the press release that was later incorporated into every major news story about us, and there were plenty across the entire country.

I always said something about the Ponce was unique. Everyone I talk to, no matter what era they served aboard the Proud Lion, says the same thing. That ship had a spirit and she was tough as old boots. Those of us who sailed her know she seemed determined to make us the same. We were beat down by Cmdr. Jones’ unfortunate command, but unlike many crews who endure the same thing, we weren’t shattered (and that is not a slam against them; any crew who suffers a horribly incapable captain is lucky to survive with their sanity barely intact). Capt. Brad Skillman, who took over the ship to finish our deployment, noted this persistence of spirity when he addressed us following the reading of his orders. We were beaten, bruised, humiliated even…but not shattered. We pulled off every mission the Navy gave us and then some while maintaining every standard of professionalism, safety, material condition, and combat readiness, despite the hurdles our own CO’s behavior put in our way.

Ponce was like that. The Sailors who crewed her were like that.

Brian and I’s conversation was not all maudlin and sad. No. We laughed aplenty at many great memories. I told him about photographing a pod of over 20 dolphins cavorting in our bow wave as we approached Jordan in 2011. We both were on the same tour of Petra, and compared notes about the sites (I’m sure I have some photos of him there, but it’ll take time to dig them up). A number of names wafted up like the smell of fond memories: Bookheim, Engle, Canning, Martin, Greene, Wagoner, Smith, Middaugh, etc.

I look forward to many more reunions like this as I travel the continent. I also look forward to meeting shipmates who served aboard Ponce long before my time. This part of my travels—symbolically taking Ponce with me—it’s not just for me (though I’m part of it). It’s for all of us who were on board her at some point.

Tomorrow I start pulling up stakes here in Bowling Green and moving on. My next stop is Mammoth Cave National Park—the longest known cave system in the world. After that, I’m off to hopefully catch up with another shipmate I learned after the fact lives in Elizabethtown—where I was three days ago! Then to Louisville (Brian told me locals pronounce it “Lohs-ville”). After that, most likely Indiana. I’m following the Lincoln family’s track as they slowly headed towards Illinois, and there’s a great World War museum in Indianapolis.

I’ll be back in Ohio for Christmas and New Years with the family. More to see there anyway, including the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant! Then it will start to get really interesting as I range back out in the Great Unknown in the middle of the deep winter.

You’ll notice a state map at the very bottom of this entry. I’m going to start adding it with every column to track my travels. I count this trip as officially starting from Florida, so each state will be marked with the month of my first visit (simply driving through a state is not a visit—a visit requires actually exploring something). I may do return visits to states, but only the initial visit will be marked. Yes, I’m from Florida, but, for the purposes of this trip, I’m counting Florida!

Onward tomorrow!

National Corvette Museum

#Kentucky #corvettemuseum #museums

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