(Note: Updated, several times, below. I've decided to do one post for this trip)
Clyde's last night was a bit rich after a long, hot day of driving and then riding the rivers of water vapor that hung in the stale, swampish air over the simmering National Mall. The crab tower, the crab cakes, the beer. Heavy, too heavy, before the warm window-shopping walk through Georgetown back to Foggy Bottom and the hotel.
Still, when the little guy pointed and shouted, "hey look, there's Abe!" it made my day. Yeah, I'm on one of those fatherly journeys straight out of the Griswold Playbook - Washington, Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown - a journey on which every turnoff overlooks a battlefield of stunning 140-year-old hatred and bloodshed. Grit my teeth, gas up, and head out.
"Aw, they'll never forget it, Tom," said one my friends in the office last week. And she's right, of course. My back and barking arches won't forget it either.
And the weird thing is, this is a city I spend a fair amount of time in during the rest of the year - wearing a suit and tie, taking meetings, talking to clients and colleagues. Humping around in baggy shorts and sneaks wearing an old Max's Kansas City t-shirt means I'm here in disguise. For one, I drove here, pounding pavement with rubber all the way down 95. "Delaware doesn't look like much, Dad," said the little guy. And he's right (though my EZ-Pass statement shows an automatic incorporation I must've racked up at 60 mph outside Wilmington). And I really hit the worlds-colliding mode when I did an NPR interview in shorts (the artist and the kids watched through the glass).
Today, it was the museums. Air and Space the terrific kid-pleaser it always is; I commune with my Spad-flying grandfather of Great War service, who I never met but whose presence I've always felt. The kids hit the simulators. The National Gallery for Jasper Johns drawings and the odd Winslow Homer. [Note: free and so much better run than the sadly declining Met].
Yesterday it was memorials - Lincoln, Vietnam, and World War Two - which I visited for the first time since making a small contribution at the behest of Tom Hanks (I got a personalized Dear Tom letter and all) a few years back. It was emotional, for one good reason - there's going to be another memorial going up on the Mall during our lifetimes. As Maya Lin's jagged wall slices its black slab of names through the earth to emphasize only the earthy sacrifice of the Vietnam War - not the phony "success" some revisionists are now peddling - so too will there be a national hat-tip to the dead of Iraq.
We know not how many.
Picked up the 12-year-old at American University - he was attending a junior leadership conference for pre-teens, which included a trip to Harpers Ferry to learn about John Brown and slavery and the spark that set off the Civil War. Then we drove down the still-gorgeous George Washington Memorial Parkway through Alexandria and on into Mount Vernon to commune with the greatest U.S. President.
My friend Ray and I were debating the top Commanders in Chief the other night at his place in Maryland, and we both came up with Washington as No. 1. (I've got Lincoln in the two spot, with FDR taking the bronze - everyone else is second-tier at best). Most Americans go with Lincoln. but Washington gets my vote because he so willingly gave up power after to astutely acquiring it - and generally using it well.
At Mount Vernon, the most brilliant place to bring a curious child on the eastern seaboard, Washington really comes alive. For one, the fantastic new visitors center now features three life-sized figures of Washington - as a 17-year-old frontiersman, the 45-year-old General, and the 58-year-old President. They were created by a team of artists working from the life mask of Washington, his actual clothing, and hair samples.
But it's the house that brings Washington to life: he built it from a small farmhouse he inherited and it still feels as if the General will return home from an evening ride, hand his reins to a slave, and walk into the study. Further, the house and ground are run by the nonprofit Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, and they have been since the 1870s - the commitment to Washington's legacy here is extraordinary.
Thunder rolled down the Potomac as we piled back into the Honda and rolled south. On I-95 between DC and Richmond, every exit sign is a market of death or glory from the 1860s. Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Mechanicsville.
But our destination is the 1770s, not the 1860s, to it's to the Rockefellers' monument to Colonial charms that we retire.
Williamsburg was also a Civil War battleground of some considerate size. On May 5, 1862 Joe Hooker's invading Union force ran into James Longstreet Confederates at the start of the ill-fated Peninsula Campaign, an early attempt to invade Virgina, capture Richmond, and end the traitorous adventure.
But the Civil War is not really in vogue on this peninsula. When the Rockefellers bought up property around old Williamsburg in the 30s, the moved the monument to Civil War dead from in front of the old colonial palace to a side street. Then then tore down every building constructed after the Revolution, and began rebuilding what never existed: a kind of eye-pleasing colonial Xanadu that celebrates a sanitized version of American history.
Thing was, they left out the black man. Decades before the cowardly judicial liar John Roberts broke the vow of his Senate confirmation and abandoned Brown vs. Board of Education as settled law, the arriviste city fathers of Colonial Williamsburg didn't admit African-Americans to their carefully reconstructed taverns to dine amidst the vacationing white man.
I was thinking of Roberts and his legal activists - Kennedy clearly had a pang of conscience when he wedged his tassel-loafered foot in the door to preserve some vague notion of educational affirmative action - when I listened to the re-enactors here at Williamsburg. These days, there's an attempt at honesty (though slavery is not as front and central in this reconstructed town as it is at Washington's plantation; there, the story is told in cold, honest and brutal terms, despite Washington's historic reputation as a "good" master who detested slavery and freed his men and women after his death).
You see, so much is so recent. And trips like this one reinforce my recurring feeling that the past is very near.
I often play this mental game of generations. Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother, who was born in 1895 in New York. Civil War veterans were contemporaries of adults living when she was born. The last veteran of the American Revolution died in 1869. The last Civil War veteran died in 1958. When my father was born, the oldest Civil War veterans were in their 80s. The oldest former slaves were in their 70s.
And the last American slave died in 1979 at age 137. Or maybe it was 1948. Accounts vary, and records can be unreliable.
The point is, the past is near.
Reconstructing it can remind us of that fact. Not that reconstructed history impressed the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who blasted the historical Virginia Disneyland in a 1965 Times article:
Williamsburg is an extraordinary, conscientious and expensive exercise in historical playacting in which real and imitation treasures and modern copies are carelessly confused in everyone's mind. Partly because it is so well done, the end effect has been to devalue authenticity and denigrate the genuine heritage of less picturesque periods to which an era and a people gave life.
Huxtable also hated South Street Seaport, Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and the renovated immigration hall at Ellis Island. I sympathize, but I've also got history-hungry children. They enjoy the march into the past; indeed, they embrace the dive into fantasy, a version of the past in tri-corner hats and leggings. They know it's not real, no more than Harry Potter or Gandalf are real. Still, there is some insight gained, however idealistic the view. And when the horses walk their clip-clip down cobble-stoned lanes and red coats pitch their camp on the village green, that gap with the past closes just a bit.
Because the past is near.
Lying under a 200-year-old oak to get out from under the late afternoon southern sun while you chug ice-cold Chownings Tavern root beers with your 12-year-old as a bunch of summer soldiers works at 18th century musketry - a wonderful thing.
Later, the 12-year-old says simply: "Dad, I want to enlist."
We stop for a moment on the colonial street.
"Run that back."
"I want to enlist in one of the re-enactor regiments someday."
But it's not. How to begin.
"Yeah, I know."
"So, let's just think about this. Is it okay to join a fake army when the real one's getting beat up - again, for something that may be wrong. But they're our soldiers."
"Yeah, they could be us, Dad."
"Right. But they're not. We're on vacation at a fancy resort. The food is terrific."
"And they're firing blanks."
"But I still think it's okay, Dad, because they teach kids about history. They reach people where we came from."
"You may be right. So you still want to enlist."
"Maybe some day."
Today, we visited Redoubts 9 and 10 just outside of Yorktown, Virginia. From a military history perspective, these grassed-over hillocks are among the most important patches of ground in American history.
These earthen defensive works were the settings for brutal carnage in October, 1781 - when French and American soldiers put the defending British troops to the bayonet and took the strategic high ground on the British left flank along the York River in a swift night raid. The French took Redoubt 9 and the Americans - led by a central-government loving New Yorker who modern-day conservatives foolishly look fondly upon - stormed Redoubt 10, closest to the York. (It was the start of Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton's fame).
Taking the redoubts effectively ended the Revolutionary War and were the last feat of arms under General George Washington. A day after the redoubts were taken, British Commander Lord Cornwallis realized that with American guns a mere two hundred yards from the British lines and a French naval blockage locking down the Chesapeake, his situation was hopeless; he ordered the surrender of 7,000 men and their arms.
Yorktown is a small battlefield - two major offensive lines and one major defensive line, all surrounding a still-small town by the York River a dozen miles from Williamsburg and across the peninsula from Jamestown. You can stand on Redoubt 9 and see the hopelessness of Cornwallis's position. We also drive out to Surrender Field, a mile from the Yorktown lines, where the British surrendered their arms and colors.
Then we drove into Yorktown for crab, and a view of the pleasure boats. Cornwallis didn't have it that good.
One American haunted this trip, rode with us every mile, showed his great character on every field and street and crossroads. Washington, of course. We didn't plan it this way, but crossing the George Washington Bridge this afternoon, we all exclaimed: "Washington, again!"
Indeed, I gave an impromptu lecture (yes, the kids suffer these - barely). The great gray bridge, I blathered blearily after seven hours on I-95, was constructed at roughly the scene of another key episode in Washington's life. A retreat is certainly less glorious than a victory of arms, but this retreat was no less important to the fledgling American nation than the strangling of Cornwallis at Yorktown. When Washington fled from Fort Lee in the fall of 1776 - the last in a long line of retreats that included Brooklyn, Harlem Heights, and White Plains - he kept his army (and the newborn republic) alive, even if just barely. The British missed their incredible chance at a knock-out blow. And Washington emerged the victor five years later.
And then he gave up power, resigning his commission at Annapolis. After presiding over the difficult Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he became the unanimous choice as President. After serving two terms, he again willingly gave up power. And thereby, with a force of personal will that matched his feat of arms, Washington established the American precedent of a peaceful transfer of executive power - some say that's the real American revolution.
Even in these difficult times, we can anticipate a peaceful transfer of power in roughly 18 months. Even Dick Cheney, the corrupt and criminal manipulator of American power, will give it up when his successor is sworn in. Not even he could possibly imagine a grab for dictatorial powers. And that's all on the Big GW, the man who could have been the King of America (apologies to Elvis Costello).
All along the way, we could see the Washington legacy - in the capital city he planned before his death, at Mount Vernon, at Williamsburg - the colonial capital where Washington met with his planter peers, was disappointed by the British in his soldier's career, and where he received his commission to the Continental Congress - and at Yorktown.
Washington has had worthy successors, and he has had men following his the office he occupied first who are lesser leaders than the lowliest soldiers in his rag-tag army - and certainly not as valiant. But he established the great American precedent. Further, he embodied another American ideal: self-improvement. Like Franklin and Adams and Jefferson, Washington was a social and economic climber. He built and he invented. He was an entrepreneur, and he was open to radical ideas - ideas with the power to change the world.
When the British laid down their weapons at Yorktown in October, 1781, the British military bands were quite careful with the tune they chose to play as the defeated army marched from its camp. They played The World Turned Upside Down, an old English ballad. And they played in odd but definite tribute to George Washington and the new American nation. Perhaps the Marine band should consider it for a cold, January day early in 2009.