This great country of ours is as diverse as each individual in it, and that in part is what makes US so strong. But there are reasons why our country is as great as it is that go back to when and why it was created in the first place.
There are places you can go to rediscover our American roots, good, bad and indifferent. And there are places you can go where it seems that you are right back there, 241 years ago and before, when we were on the cusp of coining this great adventure we call Democracy.
My wife and three youngest of five children did just that recently. With the oldest at home and working two part time jobs seven days a week, and the next oldest, a recent high school graduate, needing to attend an orientation for a summer job that started the week we were to return, the five in the majority took off for the south, not too deep, just deep enough.
On our way to Williamsburg, Virginia, we stopped for several hours in Washington, D.C. We hadn’t been there since September 12, 2006, when we attended the release party for a book I had a personal narrative in at the Library of Congress. “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front, in the words of U.S. Troops and their Families,” Random House, 2006, edited by Andrew Carroll. This is a great American wartime anthology unlike any other. I receive no royalties or residuals from sales, so when I say every American needs to read this book, it is with earnest intentions. The story, “Taking Chance,” which was made into an HBO movie starring Kevin Bacon as a U.S. Marine Corps officer escorting the body of a Marine killed in the Global War on Terror home is among the wrenching and captivating stories, nearly one hundred of them, including mine. It is unique because it includes stories from the loved ones of those deployed, the forgotten half of our military family, and the source of its sustainment.
My piece in the book written about my middle-middle son who is now 15, but was in the story only two days old when I abandoned him to answer the call of duty just months after the tragedy of 9/11/2001. I deployed soon thereafter to the U.S military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where I was the ranking U.S. Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, from February to June, 2002. But I digress.
We came into D.C. through the north. Because I hadn’t paid attention to which corner of D.C. I had entered into my smart phone GPS (there are four quarters of the city) to get us to our reserved parking space, we ended up initially in North East Washington, D.C. on a wild goose chase. Not the plan, but instructive for the children, with its rundown buildings, trash, vacant lots with overgrown weeds, and homeless Americans (veterans?) in the streets of our great (?) capital. “This country should be ashamed of this,” my wife said, thinking out loud.
I re-plotted our destination and then after a minute or two it appeared: our great Capital Dome. I asked if anyone knew what was on top of the dome. No one knew. “The Statue of Freedom,” I said. “It’s a bronze statue of a woman ready to defend her new found liberty.” I felt a pang of humiliation that my children didn’t know this. Humiliation as a parent, and humiliation for the schools my children attend. We are dropping the ball. Thank God for trips, which help remind us of these important details apparently forgotten in the classroom, and at home.
In four hours we walked over six miles, from the Washington Monument (closed until 2018 for elevator renovation), to the White House (hosting at the time an impromptu protest from across the street in front of Lafayette Park by Pakistani Sikhs against the visiting premier from India), to the majestic WWII Memorial, to the visceral Vietnam Memorial, to the staid Lincoln Memorial, to the haunting Korean War memorial, before heading back to the car. We had a pleasant picnic lunch under a shade tree on the National Mall prior to visiting the monuments, having bought deli sandwiches from a place next to the hotel where we parked. We brought bottled water and carried it and other sundries in the back pack I was issued for my deployment to Iraq (OIF III) in 2004-2005. I also wore my desert cammo boonie hat from Iraq, and a black rayon Army racing shirt from the days when the U.S. Army had a player in NASCAR, a revered sport in my house. Bath rooming was surprisingly simple. We used really nice hotel lobby restrooms, and no one ever gave us a second look. The opulence of which I hadn’t seen since using the lobby restroom at Al Faw Palace at Saddam Hussein’s Hunting and Fishing Grounds, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq, in ’04-’05. All fixtures were gilded there, surrounded by fine marble and stone with many ornate mosaic Arabic writings.
The day was spectacular. Warm in the sun with partly cloudy skies, and cooling breezes that chilled the brow in shade, which was abundant along the National Mall and around most of the memorials we visited.
I made a point to remind the children that it was possible that veterans and/or their loved ones may be visiting the memorials for the wars, and that they should be quiet and respect the privacy of those people. They did splendidly and made me proud. Only whispered questions were asked here and there, and they noted every memorial feature, walking quietly among the stone, marble, bronze, steel and granite.
We arrived in Williamsburg, at a resort timeshare generously provided to us by a former pastor of ours. We met him and his family later in the week at the pool and then for dinner, a needed reunion for both families; a touch of home, far away from it.
The day after arriving in Williamsburg we visited the restored Colonial town. The last time I had been there was with my wife, B.C. (Before Children). Shame on us for not making it back in over twenty years!
The place is well cared for, and if one didn’t know better, you’d swear you were back in Colonial times, but for the sprinkling of on-going restoration projects (even workmen wore period costumes, some with power tools!). Tour guides and players in period garb and lingo made the day a time travel experience. We took tours of the Governor’s Mansion and the Capital, and listened to a freed black slave, Marquis de Lafayette and Gen. George Washington give speeches. We saw displays of weapons used in actual Indian Wars and the Revolution. The American Revolution. That’s right. We fought a bloody and long war in order to boost the royal tyrant English from our land. Our land. In the name of Freedom and Liberty.
Since joining Ancestry.com and doing a DNA analysis I have discovered over 12,000 relatives and counting, several of whom were Revolutionary War soldiers, including one, Private Jeptha Bartholomew (1755-1813), who crossed the Delaware with General George Washington, on the night of December 25-26, 1776. One was also Pocahontas, or “Rebecca” Powhatan (1595-1617). The name of the place we stayed at was the Historic Powhatan Resort. The connections added magnitude and depth to the experience.
The following day we visited Jamestown and Yorktown. First gliding through museums and watching films and then exploring re-created forts and villages and farms. All incredibly restored and recreated. We learned that the idioms, “lock, stock and barrel,” and “don’t go off half-cocked” among many others, were from the parts and function of a colonial musket – still used today! How simple life was back then, how focused on survival, both from the elements and the natives and the rulers. The children put on garments and armor from the past and watched demonstrations of colonial medicine, musket and cannon fire, cooking and games.
It was magical to watch them engage in the spirit of the times, to immerse themselves in what they were seeing and experiencing. The questions flowed. Time flew.
The next and last full day in Virginia was pure fun: Busch Gardens amusement park. We were already big fans and Vacation Club Owners of Disney, and especially of EPCOT and the World Showcase in Orlando, so the international layout of Busch Gardens made us feel right at home. We made a point to see most of the shows, including the “Octoberzest” German folk dance and song show, and the Irish step dancing show called “Celtic Fyre,” depicting the goings on before an Irish wedding at the local pub. Fresh brogues and costumes of a 1950’s Ireland, there was even an American cameo – a female jazz/tap dancer who gave the blarney’s a run for their money. But the steps, oh, the steps! Fierce, alive and succinct! Outcroppings along the edge of the stage bubbled out and were home to seated audience members nay inches from the shoes, those loud, flashing, dazzling and wonderful shoes! Breathtaking and exciting, we wished we could join them up there with some divine dancing skills just for the moment.
Oh, how I wished the shows never ended! They were perfectly performed and spectacular!
German feast, ice cream and milk shakes; lots of drinking water, though it wasn’t hot, but warm and pleasant.
Roller coasters thrilled and delighted. Animal shows amazed and tickled. Water rides refreshed. We laughed, we played, and we ran and sang. And we missed the missing two brothers.
Sunsets and late evenings at the resort pool ended daily chapters we were writing in the family history book. The next day however, we were up-and-at-‘em!
We made a decision to go home through Gettysburg, PA, instead of taking a coastal route, or traveling through D.C. again. Going through Gettysburg would also steer us toward Lancaster County, PA, on our trek east, a favorite place of ours. Detours would cost us hours getting home, but we remembered that, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” (Anonymous.)
While we were driving up to Gettysburg from Williamsburg, and before we stopped for breakfast we engaged the children in what their favorite part of the vacation was. We all had our picks, but my 15 year old said, “The vacation isn’t over yet.” I took that to mean that nothing really floated his boat, including the roller coasters at Busch Gardens.
We stopped just outside Richmond, VA, for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (one of our FAVORITE places to eat and play; checkers games between my 15 year old and ten year old prevailed throughout the vacation – they even brought a set with them on the trip – Cracker Barrel has many LARGE checkers sets around the place, so guess who ate their meal super fast so that they could play?). My wife and 8 year-old daughter love to look at the clothes and knick-knacks, and I enjoy window shopping the military and patriotic fare. The food of course mimics homemade and is tough to beat.
At the restaurant, my 15 year-old, an avid NASCAR fan (blame me) was fididdling on his smart phone – typically verboten at table – and he looked up innocently before the meal arrived and said, “Did you know that Richmond International Speedway is only five miles away?” My wife and I looked at each other, shrugged and said, “Why not?” There was no race that day, but their website said the administrative offices were open 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
We stopped in and were surprised to find a very sparse selection of fan items; only a t-shirt or two and a few hats. No die cast race cars for purchase. A twenty-something worker behind the glass at the front office counter, out of the blue asked if we would like a tour of the track. “WHAT?! Really?!” we all seemed to exclaim at once.
He was serious, and seriously was not going to charge us anything (my wife said this was “Southern Hospitality”). He said to meet him outside in the parking lot. He motioned us over to a pace car! My wife and daughter were not interested, so stayed in the minivan for the fifteen minutes we were gone. I told my 15 year-old sit up front, and we talked NASCAR on the way to the track. The attendant drove us around the completely otherwise deserted NASCAR track, a short one, but a banked tri-oval. In all the years I had gone to NASCAR races as a kid and I NEVER got a ride around a track, let alone in a pace car! Although the car was only going about 60 miles per hour or so you could feel the pull to the outside of the track. I could not imagine going nearly three times as fast, with other cars all around me trying to go just a smidgen faster! My son took video from the front seat, and then the attendant asked if we’d like to take photos at Victory Lane. We did!
He drove us back; I got a photo of the attendant with the boys by the pace car and then got his email address to send him a copy of the photo and say “Thanks!” before we resumed our trip. We made it a point with the boys that they needed to pass this forward in their lives. Someone was so kind and generous with them, and they needed to recognize that. They nodded and said, “Yes, we will.” I told them that they would remember this experience the rest of their lives and that they had an obligation to pay it forward. It is a Boy Scouts of America philosophy that a Boy Scout does a “Good turn daily,” without the expectation or acceptance of reward. He does it because it is the right thing to do.
I have noticed a subtle difference in the boys after we returned home; they are more eager to help their mother around the house, not complaining about chores. My 15 year-old even washed my car without being asked. A small act of kindness has sent ripples through the pond of humanity for two young boys; simple, pure and delightful.
Gettysburg was unplanned, so we stuck to the visitor center movie, museum and the miraculous cyclorama painting depicting the third and final day of the battle in Gettysburg. Painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and a team of assistants, the painting is 22 feet high and has a circumference of 279 feet. With the special lighting in the room where it is displayed, the features and figures appear real. My daughter kept commenting that she thought there were actual people and horses moving in the painting. We got to see the painting twice because the first time through the light show wasn’t working and needed to be “rebooted.” That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the children hadn’t gone through the museum yet. After seeing the artifacts and learning more about the Civil War and the great battle, the painting had more meaning for them – and hopefully more influence. The movie that started our experience highlighted slavery at first, and then the important details of the battle, and finished with President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which we had seen and read engraved on an inside wall of the Lincoln Memorial several days before. The greatest speech in American history was lain before my children, and the place it was given just a short walk away, along with the acres of hallowed ground that none of us could ever consecrate, we can only mourn and then inspire ourselves to preserve and defend what part of Gettysburg lies in each of us, black or white, Yankee or Rebel. In the words of actor Louis Gossett, Jr. on the eve of the 2016 Academy Awards, which was boycotted by many African American actors and entertainers, and on the red carpet, Mr. Gossett, Jr., himself a winner of an Oscar, said in response to a question about what he thought of the boycott, said, “We are all one family, the American Family.”
Despite Ancestry.com, I knew of at least one relative, my second great grandfather, Freeman Woodman (1838-1935), who fought in the Civil War. I grew up knowing one of his daughters, my great grandmother, Florence (Woodman) Merrick (1883-1989). That’s right, she passed away at 106. Just before her passing she could still tell you stories about the farm she grew up on, and of the little girl in pig tails who used to play and work on that farm, my mother. Stories of Great, Great Grandpa Woodman abounded, but they were stories taken from the man himself, passed down in a great oral tradition, that before radio and television was the main entertainment and transfer of information. We called it “conversation.”
My Grandpa Woodman left a legacy however. He kept a diary during his Civil War days and beyond (over 70 years in fact). As a young woman, my mother had written a weekly column in a local newspaper in southern Wisconsin where she grew up, in which she would share portions of the diary. Any soldier who has seen combat will tell you that war is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror. My great, great grandpa’s diary proved this out. He marched through Georgia to the sea with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. He was also a standard bearer for a time, picking up the flag in battle when the man carrying it in front of him fell from a Rebel musket ball. If there has ever been a time in our history when we all need to pick up that flag and rush on, it is now.
The last stop on our trip was to be Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We have so many fond memories of Lancaster, especially of certain out of the way restaurants and shops and attractions. Our favorites were in and around Strasburg, PA, the train place. The Pennsylvania Train Museum is there, and across the street from it is a living steam engine or two, with restored period coaches, a dining car and a station/shop. This is where my older three boys got to ride the “real” Thomas the Tank Engine years earlier when they were into such things.
Just east of the station, and in sight from there, is the Red Caboose Motel, where we had stayed as a younger and smaller family on several occasions. Restored cabooses, renovated into hotel rooms, are the kitsch. Cramped and standard, these “rooms” looked better on the outside, with colorful depictions of actual cabooses that tailed great American railroad trains. The main hotel front desk and lobby is a big renovated farm house, with a shop, restrooms and a large working model train display. On either side there are restored dining cars that formed the Casey Jones Restaurant. This was to be our final stop before pushing home on Long Island, New York. We looked up the menu on line before arrival and tried to make a reservation, which they didn’t take. The menu looked enticing, with one section of normal American fair, and another section of “Amish Favorites.” That appealed to us. Comfort food and home cooking, farm fresh!
When we were seated the menu looked very different, and we inquired. The waiter, a jittery twenty-something local farm boy said with a nervous laugh, “This is a brand new menu as of two hours ago. I guess we’ll learn it together.” Yikes!
The railroad dining car we were sitting in was a restored original, and the aisles were narrow; only four to a table. We took the opportunity to have an adult table and a kids table, which makes for a very pleasant dining experience. The kids were close enough to converse with, but far enough away to at times pretend my wife and I were on a date.
We ordered and then waited, a little longer than one would expect, but because of where we were and what we could see out of the dining car window, it didn’t matter when we were served.
Our view looked west and towards the steam train station, across a recently cut alfalfa field. The crop lay in neat serpentine rows, a deep and fresh green. In the distance, we could make out a lone Amish man, fixing a team of five large and beautiful horses to the front of a bailer and flat bed trailers behind.
After a time, the team was urged forward, and the machine, most likely run on kerosene, the fuel of choice for the Amish, began to bale the alfalfa in neat blocks that plopped onto the deck of a trailer, and then organized by the Amish man into a low pyramid.
As the team came towards us, the sun sank lower in the sky, playing hide-and-seek behind large billows of dark and silver clouds threatening rain and a storm from the distance. I rose from my seat and told my wife I was going to go outside to take a picture of the team from the front porch.
The wind was blowing ahead of the storm, and there was a flag on the porch post blowing into my framing of the farm scene in front of me, as if God was saying there had to be the Stars and Stripes in this American picture. As the team got closer to us I started snapping photos.
We are transported sometimes when we can let go of who we have to be and then live in the moment. The connection with the land, the farmer, the horses, the flag, the weather, and the trains was strong. Like gravity pulling me into a vortex of Americana. I spun in my own wonder and joining with the scene, visceral and fragrant. I let it take me in.
When I returned to my seat, the food had finally arrived. Before this our dining was simple and delicious, from period cooking at Williamsburg, to local southern breakfasts, hearty and wholesome. This however was amazing.
I had ordered an American favorite: pot roast dinner. The meat, pulled apart and glowing warm with gravy was literally melt-in-your-mouth velvet, and lay atop mashed potatoes that tasted handmade, smooth and buttery but with pieces of potato floating in the pillows of goodness, filling me with warmth. This centerpiece was surrounded by garden fresh vegetables and roasted and quartered tomatoes. The tang of the tomatoes followed sweetness and complimented the heavenly roast and potatoes. I had never had such a meal. Even Mom’s home cooking from scratch was not comparable (sorry Mom!). There was something special about this meal. It seemed prepared with such care and attention to detail. Every element was perfection and came together in a symphony of goodness. I wished it never ended, and I ate it slowly, savoring each flavor in each bite; layers of nourishing virtue.
On our way out there were the working model train display, a petting zoo of farm animals (and a llama or two), a playground, and various other farm items to observe, including buggies, water pumps; barns and a silo you climb up to the top in.
We didn’t stop again until we pulled into our suburban driveway, a few minutes past midnight. Our magical and stupendous journey had ended, like Cinderella’s coach reverting back into a pumpkin, once again we faced mundane routines, left for a week to suit themselves.
But this is America, too. And it, like everything else in this life, is what we make of it. We have choices, and those choices have consequences, good and bad. We reflect on the choices of our ancestors, who lived and died so that future generations could enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices. My Grandma Woodman, 106 when she passed in 1989, at the time represented the halfway mark in the history of our nation as its own country. She was born 107 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and I knew her. How very young this country of ours truly is. How tangible some of its memories.
But if you let it, our great land can speak to you, your heart and soul, from a recreated colonial town, village, settlement, Revolutionary or Civil War battlefield, to the heart of American strength and pride, working the field in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. America.