July 2012


The White House (Apparently, some visitors think the Capitol Building is the White House–this is what it looks like.)

After a wonderfully relaxing free day (and time for my back to recover…), we got up early (7/15/12) and headed into Washington. We decided to go on Sunday, figuring there would be less traffic to deal with, and we were right
. . . until we got INTO Washington. I can honestly say you couldn’t pay me enough to deal with the traffic, construction, and parking hassles that go with that kind of city. We drove around looking for a parking space for easily a half an hour. Finally, we found a parking meter (free parking on Sunday) by the Daughters of the American Revolution building and set out.

We started out by heading to the White House. We had attempted to schedule a tour, but, though I scheduled a month ahead of time, there were none available. So, for those who are unfamiliar with travel to Washington, you have to book tours through your local Congressman–they recommend a month ahead of time–in our case, that wasn’t enough, even with the two-week window we gave them for possible tour dates.

Smithsonian Castle–We didn’t visit, but it’s a cool piece of architecture!

After the White House, we headed to the Smithsonian. This amazing group of museums (19 in all) could easily take all day. As we were standing in line to get in, one of my students remembered he’s wearing his knife. It’s a pocket knife that belonged to his grandfather which he wears all the time, so it had completely slipped his mind that he had it on. “Well, we’ll see.” I said. Before we even got to the check point good, the man asked him for it. We asked if he could leave it there and pick it up on the way out. No dice. “You have two options,” the man told us, “You can take it back to your vehicle and come back, or you can leave.” Sigh. The car was a good mile and a half away easily. “I’ll take it to the car.” He decided. “Grab lunch,” I said with a smile (our lunch bag was in the car.) Lest you think me cold and unfeeling, I DID offer to go with him…

So a good hour later, he returned with our lunch and Gatorade, sans knife–did I mention it was over 100 degrees outside? We sat in the cafĂ© and ate our lunch before beginning the tour of the American History Museum. This amazing museum houses the original “Star Spangled Banner,” which was one of my favorite exhibits. (No photography allowed, alas.) It’s a surreal experience to sit in the same room as an artifact that witnessed such crucial history. Other favorite areas of mine included the areas devoted to the presidents, with special exhibits devoted to those who had been assassinated. I also loved the areas devoted to the wars America has experienced. I know we didn’t see half of what was available just in this one museum, but we decided to move on.

Some of Washington’s supplies

We next went to the National Air and Space Museum. One of my students wants to be a pilot, so this museum is a favorite of his. In addition to a huge collection of planes (as seen in the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, it also has a flight simulator where you can practice either your flying skills or your bombing skills, depending on which seat you occupy. It is an remarkable experience. I opted not to go this time, since the last time I was there, my co-pilot (student), was quite inexperienced, and I spent most of the time hanging upside down from my seatbelt and laughing, which resulted in bursting a great deal of capillaries in my face….Memorable, but not something I wanted to repeat. Ironically, the student who loves this museum was on that trip as well, but his plane had no such “hang-ups.” Alas…The moral of the story is, if you opt to do the flight simulator, make sure you have a good pilot.

We had planned on going to the Holocaust Museum as well (MY favorite of the museums–not part of the Smithsonian, but nearby), but it was almost 6, and unlike the Smithsonian, which had extended summer hours (to 7:30 instead of 5), the Holocaust Museum still closed at 5. We were coming back Wednesday for our Capitol tour, so we decided to call it a day and begin the longer trek back to the car, since we were now on the farthest side of the Smithsonian instead of the closest. Thankfully, the “Scattered Thunderstorms” held off just long enough for us to get to the car before letting loose. Definitely a memorable day!

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White House of the Confederacy (AKA base camp in Zombie Apocalypse)

We had to move condos today (7/13/12), so since we were making the trek up to Northern Virginia to Massanutten Resort located in McGaheysville, Virginia, we decided to make a few stops along the way. I had managed to pull a muscle in my back the evening before, so was in quite a bit of pain. Still, we decided to stop in Richmond, Virginia, which was not only the Confederate capital, but also boasted both the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House. After looking around a bit, my back was still hurting, so we decided to save our walking for Appomattox, and headed out, but not before the boys decided the COnfederate White House would be the ideal fortress in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse–too much Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer, I think….

Footprint in the brick

From there we headed to Appomattox Courthouse, which I had seen on my previous visit, but hadn’t been able to explore. It is definitely and amazing experience. When we entered the visitor center, we were met by a tour guide who explained that there would be interpreters around to talk with us and to treat them as if it really was in the 1860’s. With that, she took us over to the Clover Hill Tavern (built in 1819 and the oldest structure in the area). We were met by a reenactor who told us about the different people in the area. He especially poked fun at Thomas McLean, calling him arrogant for proclaiming himself the Alpha and Omega of the Civil War because he had lived in Manassas Junction when the war started, then moved to Appomattox Courthouse where it ended.

Table where Lee signed the Surrender

One cool story he told us was the legend of one of the tavern owners. Supposedly, the when the tavern was being built, this man took little girl down to the brick makers (since everything was made on property) and pressed her foot into one of the bricks. If you look under the window, you can see the brick with the little girl’s footprint in it. It is a legend, but whatever the reason, the brick is definitely there. It was also amazing to see the two tables in the McLean House where Lee and Grant signed the surrender of the Army of the Northern Virginia. For me, there is a connection, since one of my ancestors made the table Lee sat at when he signed the surrender. That was a neat experience for me.

Thomas McLean House

The park offers a real sense of scope and was just a peaceful place to sit on the porch with a reenactor or walk around the fields, cemeteries, and various outbuildings. It was a great stop on our road up to Massanutten resort. The resort is quite luxurious, so we are opting to take a free day tomorrow to just enjoy the many things available here before jumping into our crazy last week.

Confronting the Governor

I truly think I will never get tired of Colonial Williamsburg. Probably in my lifetime, I have spent at least 50 days there, and every time I go, I see something different and learn something new. Today (7/12/12) was no exception.

Because there are two parts to the living history drama performed in the streets, we wanted to make sure we saw the second part, having seen the first on Monday. This days focus included such new events as the choices presented to African-Americans, a march on the Governor’s mansion, and a neat bit of sword fighting. My students were especially impressed with the “non-scripted” performances–the casual conversations the actors would have with each other or us while simply walking down the street. It definitely added to the sense of reality.

Sword play

We were also able to hear a conversation with Thomas Jefferson, which was especially enlightening in light of the current political scene. It was truly an incredible experience. Another surprise came in the form of entertainment at Raleigh Tavern. The site not only boasted an original billiard table from the Colonial era, but for this special event, brought out musicians and vocalists who were truly breathtaking.

Reading the Declaration of Independence

Finally, we met on the steps of the courthouse to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence performed by a variety of actors. One of the passions of my heart is for “common citizens” to know these documents and appreciate the rights we have and the reasons for which we fought. Unfortunately, too few Americans ever even read our founding documents. To hear this amazing document read publicly on the steps of a courthouse where it quite possibly was read centuries ago was quite a surreal experience, and one I won’t soon forget.

Militia Preparations

The reading was immediately followed by fife and drum music and a series of maneuvers by the militia, reminding the viewer that our Independence, while “free” to us, cost our forefathers dearly. Those who pledged “their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor” often made good on that pledge. Would that we would be reminded of their commitment and sacrifice and not allow government to rob us of those very liberties for which they spilled their blood.

Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry

(7/11/12) We set out this morning to spend our time in Yorktown, taking in both the Battlefield and the Victory Center. While one could easily spend a whole day in either place, it was brutally hot, and we were in a rush to get back to Williamsburg to hear Patrick Henry speak, since Wednesday was the only day he would be doing so. (He is one of our favorite Colonial Williamsburg reenactors. If you get a chance, go hear him–the man can answer questions off the cuff with quotes from letters Patrick Henry wrote–he is quite literally a fount of knowledge!)

Work around the home

Yorktown battlefield has a number of cool walking trails and ranger programs available, but we opted to spend the bulk of our time in the Yorktown Settlement. The Settlement consists of both a village area and a military settlement. In the village area, one can see crops growing, livestock wandering, and reenactors involved in various tasks like cooking, planting, dying wool, and many other activities.

Musket Demonstration

Currently, visitors then go through the museum to get to the military camp, but I believe that is changing. The museum houses such interesting pieces of history as a replica ship and items found on it and an actual tent George Washington stayed in. Additionally, there are areas set up where statues narrate different aspects of the war from a variety of perspectives. It’s definitely a unique approach to giving audiences a well-rounded education.

After Patrick Henry and dinner, we decided to head back to Yorktown so one of the students could do some fishing. The area was beautiful and had such a peaceful feeling to it. One of my goals for this trip was that each of us would have some “Soul time”–time just to be away from everything and reflect on life and our place in it. I think for most of us, this was that time.

Fishing Spots

When it finally got dark, we headed into Yorktown. We had been discussing the paranormal activity usually associated with battlefield areas, and my students wanted to look around and “see what we could see.” It was pitch black when we arrived, so the atmosphere was already there. We were heading towards a building we had read about earlier when all of a sudden we heard fifes playing. Keep in mind, this is 9:00 at night. We all stopped in the road and looked at each other. Mentally, I ran through all the reasons we could have heard them, but honestly, fifes are usually something we hear at Williamsburg–at 5:00…Definitely unique. We wandered around the cemetery there, then went and sat on the Victory Monument and talked. There’s something about being alone in nature that just facilitates good discussions, and this evening was full of them. Finally, after a brief Nerf gun battle in the parking lot, we decided to head home, with souls a bit richer for the experience.

The Crater

(7/10/12) We got up early to head to Petersburg National Battlefield. We had planned to head to the crater, but some issues with the GPS led us to the Park Headquarters instead of the Crater. It ended up being an amazing trip, though, since we ended up on a side of the park I’d never seen before: The Five Forks Battlefield. It was a neat area with a number of trails, which we hiked. It was an amazing experience to walk through the woods and imagine what it must have been like for those who battled here. Five Forks was actually the last place the soldiers struggled before retreating to Appomattox.

After hiking around, we explored the crater. For those unfamiliar with the story, Petersburg was under a siege. The Union army utilized the skills of sever soldiers who had been miners to dig their way underground until they were directly under the Confederate lines. They packed the area with explosives, which blew out a huge section of the wall, launched two cannons in the air, and created a crater in the ground which is still visible today. It is an incredible site to behold and well worth the trip.

Reading a Proclamation

(7/9/12) One of my favorite places in the world is Colonial Williamsburg. For those unfamiliar with it, this area is one of (if not the) largest outdoor living history museums. It was especially fun for me to have students with me to see everything. Watching someone else watch something gives you an entirely different perspective.

Volunteering for the Militia

For anyone visiting Colonial Williamsburg, one should know that in addition to the amazing architecture of the city, they also do a series of living history sketches. The street drama performances take the audience all over the city to a variety of buildings and gardens as they follow the path of the revolution. These dramas take place as a series of conversations between actors and actresses, but there is also a great deal of ad libbing from other actors stationed around the crowd that makes it a lot of fun. To get the entire story of the revolution, one needs to go two consecutive days or an even day and an odd day, as there is a two-day cycle of the dramas performed. My students volunteered to join the army and pledged to defend the honor of Virginia and the safety of their fellow citizens. It was an amazing amount of fun.

The Capitol Building

After that, we toured the city, where some special highlights included the Magazine, which is the storehouse for weapons, and the Governor’s Mansion and gardens, which in addition to being beautiful, hosted a maze. This was also fun for my students to explore.

We went home for dinner, then returned after “the city had closed” to tour a number of the shops and generally explore the grounds and play. From the history side to the fun side, it was an another incredible day.

Statue of John Smith at Historic Jamestowne

(7/8/12) Since visiting Jamestown Settlement yesterday, we opted to continue our Jamestowne experience with a visit to Historic Jamestowne (after attending church in the morning). Just a few miles down the Colonial Parkway from the Settlement, Historic Jamestowne is the actual site of the first permanent English Colony. I particularly enjoy this site because of the amazing richness of the displays they have. While the heat index was 120 degrees, we still had a great time.

On this visit, I was impressed by all the areas in which archaeological digs are being done. While they were not excavating on Sunday, there were at least 5 sites being examined and additional reconstruction work being done. No matter how often you visit, there is always something new to see. This site also offers a museum which contains artifacts found on the actual Jamestowne location. One of my favorite exhibits is a casting (the original is in the Smithsonian) of a skeleton found on the site. His mouth is open in a screaming position and there is a musket ball lodged in his leg. For me, it is the perfect picture of the real people who struggled here and what they faced.

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