Road Trip! Sunday, August 14, 2011-Gettysburg and Mt. Vernon

There is no quiet so complete as that which you find on a battlefield.  I am standing on little Round Top on the Gettysburg Battlefield looking down at Devil’s Den

and I am still trying to understand how a man has the courage and stamina to charge up a hill under withering artillery and musket fire not once, not twice, but five times, all the while seeing your own kin killed all around you, and this after a brutally hot summer’s day during which you force-marched in full combat gear over 24 miles to reach this point?  That is what General Lee’s army did in a desperate attempt to roll up the Union flank on July 2, 1863, the single bloodiest day of fighting in US history.  An average of 2,500 men died an hour during the various battles for Cemetery Ridge on that day.  On the next day was Pickett’s charge, and the course of the war was forever changed.

But we started our day in Alexandria, Va., at the almost new Spring Hill Suites, a Marriott chain, and a good choice for staying in the DC area for only $100.  Clean, modern, you might even say sleek and sophisticated, this place has it all: a fridge, microwave, desk, living area, two very comfy beds, and, most important of all, a separate throne room for a long leisurely reading session…:)  My only complaint is that the breakfast buffet has a line of screeching Japanese kids waiting for the waffle machine, which makes a darned nice morning treat if you have time to wait.  I’m still amazed that each 5 year old needs a plate-sized waffle, but I can’t complain, since everything else is so nice, except for the elevator, which inexplicably cannot be used to go from the ground floor to my room, as if this were the Empire State building instead of a 5 story low rise.

We head off to the Potomac River on another misty, drizzling day and soon find ourselves at Mt. Vernon, which is almost as much of an American icon as Monticello (only George just gets an eagle on the obverse side of his quarter), and once again I’m struck by the modest way these men lived, if we discount the huge numbers of servants and slaves that labored under them, which we should, since after all today we have mechanical slaves like washing and drying machines, hot and cold running water, and electric ovens doing the heavy lifting for us, in addition to having palatial homes for even fairly low level junior executives.  I have been in many friend’s homes which dwarf George Washington’s so-called mansion, but I’m pretty sure our first President would not have engaged in a “keeping up with the Jones’s” type of mentality.

And the kind of disciplined leadership and selfless dedication that Washington brought to his military campaigns he also used in the construction at Mt. Vernon, which is a very simple yet comfortable dwelling, really, and, though it lacks the formality of Jefferson’s Monticello, it has a dignified and welcoming aspect to it that makes it seem like a comfortable and accessible home, rather than a royal mansion, and who can doubt that the view from the two story back porch, a wide angle look at the mile wide Potomac, is sight worthy of a king’s castle?  Yet each of us looking at it can just imagine sitting down in one of those wooden deck chairs and enjoying a spot of the wine from the estate’s vineyards while playing a game of chess with George as the shadows stretch across the river, and that is no accident, for this was a very warm and practical home that was made for friends and family, a simple rectangular affair with a signature cupola crowning it’s whitewashed wood walls, treated to look like stone.  Mt. Vernon is country warmth, where Jefferson’s Monticello is grand sophistication.

Here was a man of substance and dignity, a man who wanted to simply be known as a citizen of the United States on his tomb.  Not President.  Not king.  Citizen.  Where is that kind of modesty today?

He was a tall, elegant person, the best dancer in Virginia, and he entertained often and lavishly for a dizzying array of guests, so many you had to pity Martha Washington, and not only for that, but also because old George did the interior decorating, and the results are a little mixed, to say the least, and especially if you check out the green paint in the informal dining room, which looks like a possible option for a 1971 Dodge Challenger.

I make no secret that Washington is my favorite president, and I consider him to be the one indispensable man in our Revolution, which would have been impossible without him.  And does anyone doubt that, in the aftermath of that war, had Alexander Hamilton been given the chance to be king (as George Washington had), that he would not have seized the opportunity as quickly as Bill Clinton grabbing an intern?

So here, within a short drive of Monticello, we have two of the greatest men in history, and they are contemporaries of each other, and what do they have in common?  Why did they show up at the exact moment in time?  What gave rise to such genius?

There was a time when men received a classical education, either formally or self taught, and there was some degree of understanding as to what that meant, and it went far beyond mere learning to a code of gentlemanly conduct which hailed from the (pre-Enlightenment) age of chivalry.  The thinking was that men had a duty to honor their God and their country first, and to sully the name of their family with wrongful conduct was unthinkable.  They expected that the mantle of leadership ought to naturally fall to them, precisely because they had been prepared for exactly that their entire lives, and nothing less was ever expected.

But there was, more importantly and concretely, a love of the land.  Ownership of estates and parcels was passed down for generations, and both Washington and Jefferson spent all of their adult years building and rebuilding dwellings on the same ground as their forefathers.  That sense of direct connection with a specific and local piece of the good earth created a very real bond, and thus both men agreed that an educated agrarian society was best suited for the fluid rigors of a modern republic.  To the degree that we have become divorced from the land of our fathers, then, we have become rootless aliens in our own country incapable of the deep and meaningful greatness which was expected as a kind of noblesse oblige by the Founders, who had hopes that ordinary men could also achieve great things and govern wisely if provided with the same tools.

You can easily see this connection in the writings and everyday life of Washington, who, like Jefferson, regularly conducted agricultural experiments (see the 16 sided barn below) and was intimately involved in the most intricate and minute details of the Mt. Vernon estate, which actually had to pull its own weight and be a productive business enterprise.  One French nobleman commented that he was amazed that Washington “broke all his own horses” and made it an early morning routine to ride his estate in order to properly manage and conduct its affairs.  Can anyone imagine an Obama breaking in a horse, or even a Pekingese, without the help of an Aide-de-Camp, who would in turn hire the Dog Whisperer for him?  Could Bush read Horace in the original Latin without the help of cartoon illustrations and an interpreter?

The point is, these men were products of their times, and they were denizens of specific places and cultures, which demanded dignity, knowledge, faith, and courage. Oh, do we need such today!

But soon enough, Jonathan and I must leave, and we’ve spent so much time at Mt. Vernon that we have to skip Baltimore, which is a pity, but we just didn’t allow enough time for it.  So we head north and west to Gettysburg, and the sun comes out long enough to drop the top and listen to some CCR “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor” on the way, and all thoughts of the Founding Fathers are soon behind me.

We use the Historic Tour Company to tour the world’ most famous battlefield, and that’s how I wind up on Round Top looking down the barrel of a cannon at a long range view of the city and points beyond, and it strikes me that, for a moment, all I can hear is the wind, and the quiet seems so appropriate where so many brave and noble men died for a cause they believed in on both sides of that terrible war.  For a moment, you can feel all of the souls that died there, and the voice of the wind is a haunting sigh from beyond the grave and outside of time.  To stand here on this field is to become connected to something bigger than yourself, and it is at once a reflection and a warning. I hope that we heed it.

So much has been written about this battle and war by so many truly gifted writers that I’m afraid to say much myself, so here are just a few impressions.

I’m amazed once again that so many momentous swings in battle are left to nothing more than mistakes or simply luck, and how the course of human history could swing in one direction or another by a simple twist fate.  I’m amazed at human courage and endurance.  I’m amazed that wars are so often fought by the poorest and yet oftentimes the best people in society.  I’m amazed we rarely seem to find a solution better than war to solve problems.

I’m also amazed that our van is pulled over by the Park Police, who issue our driver a ticket for not having functioning brake lights, and that our tour does not leave in a vintage safari bus as advertised but in a simple box van, which is why, along witha  30 minute departure delay, i can’t recommend this company.  Try the Segway tour instead.  It looked like more fun.

Jonathan and I enjoyed a 14″ pie at Tommy’s Pizza, loaded with everything, and it was delicious, with a nice crispy crust, not too thick or thin, and piled high with heart clogging cheese, sausage, ground beef, pepperoni, ham, mushroom, onions, black olives, and peppers.  We have waddled back to our hotel, the Budget Host 3 Crowns Motor Inn, which might sound kind of kitschy, but that is perfect for this “down and outer”, which is straight out of the 1960’s, complete with a wall A/C unit, laminate furniture, and green counter tile, but it is clean and is in the middle of everything and even has WiFi, and I highly recommend it, but mostly because of the price, $65, which isn’t bad for the middle of the tourist season.  Jonathan’s done a good job setting this one up again, and some day I’ll thank him, but I don’t want him to get cocky.  See y’all tomorrow!

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