Lightning bugs filled the dusky sky as night dropped in on us in Catonsville, Maryland. We were in my Aunt Virginia’s backyard, the same backyard where, as a boy, I chased lightning bugs—fireflies—with my brothers and my cousin. Now, it was Shannon’s turn and though we visited Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Hershey, Lancaster and Annapolis, the lightning bugs with my daughter stand out. My childhood was being relived right in front of me.
We started discussing this trip late last year when my Aunt cajoled for the umpteenth time that we should come back and visit. We had been considering going to Yellowstone, but opted instead for the east coast and Aunt Virginia offered us a chance to stay at her house—saving us tons of money and allowing us to reconnect with my family and give Shannon a chance to know them. Sue, Aunt Laurie, Shannon and I were set and off to the Mid-Atlantic east coast.
Cheaper flights dictated landing in Philadelphia and so we took advantage of some points we had with Sheraton and stayed one night, Sunday June 10, in the hotel and awoke Monday morning to go into Independence Hall, Constitution Hall, the Liberty Bell, The Federal Treasury and Mint, City Tavern and Ben Franklin’s residence. We did all of that in a morning and afternoon.
If the highlight of the trip for me was reconnection with old roots, Philadelphia, our first stop and our first day as tourists, was the best place to begin. Shannon had studied the Revolution in school this past year and after she stood in the same place where John Adams was sworn in as second President of the U.S., she kept saying, “I have a historical foot!”
The weather was perfect. The hottest day we had on the whole trip was in Philadelphia when we landed. It was 87 degrees with a bit of humidity. After that, the temps went down and breezes blew. At one point, we were wearing jackets because it got cool. Weather played almost no negative role in our trip. It rained in Washington on Tuesday, but we spent the day at the Library of Congress and the Capitol, which are connected by a tunnel and we didn’t really have to spend much time outside.
I lived for a short time across the river from Philadelphia while my dad worked in the city for ARA and I loved it then and found that I still do. The history, the food, and the people—all of it was so wonderful. At City Tavern, where the founding fathers gathered, ate, drank and talked, we enjoyed lunch with a waitress who was in process of obtaining her history doctorate at Penn and she was a font of information.
We walked up the stairs to see the gathering and meeting places of our founding fathers. The Cincinnati Room, named for George Washington’s favorite philosopher and role model, Cincinnatus, was like walking into the past. It was quiet inside and a long table with replicas of the chairs that once sat there was replete with the history of the place. Washington’s favorite sitting spot was at the back of the room near the window. He apparently would sit and listen and not talk very much–something he did almost his entire life–and Shannon wanted to sit in the spot Washington did. Our trip was flecked by the shadow of the great man’s footsteps starting on day 1.
The Tavern looks much as it did in the 18th Century and the Chef has become somewhat famous for his historical cooking. We enjoyed lunch tremendously and afterwards, walked along cobblestone roads toward Dr. Franklin’s home while the cool breeze came off the Delaware River.
We drove to Catonsville in the afternoon to Aunt Virginia’s house, our home of the next 8 days while we set out to explore. My aunt is 88 years old, but you would never know it. She took such good care of us that we felt spoiled. She gave up her bedroom for Sue and me, a point which made us uncomfortable and which we asked her to reconsider repeatedly to no avail. She slept in the guest room while Shannon slept in the third bedroom and Aunt Laurie slept in the furnished cellar. Comfortable and at home, we gathered nightly for dinner and then sat on the patio watching the planes fly into Baltimore Washington International, sipping wine and talking into the evening and chasing lightning bugs.
Tuesday, Sue once again managed to be amazing and putting the finishing touches on planning she’d begun at home on the Internet, she mastered the DC Metro subway system. Driving into D.C. is apparently a bad choice for tourists, so we drove to Wheaton, MD where we boarded the Metro, obtaining a “smart card” for parking and getting all day riding passes for a relatively low fee—less than we’d have paid for a metropolitan parking garage. We rode the metro, as it’s known, and because of Sue, navigated like natives around the Capitol City.
The rain pelted down, warm and sporadic, while we walked to Capitol Hill up Delaware Avenue from Union Station. We went through the tunnel to the Library of Congress first and we ate at the cafeteria there. We dined on salads and drank iced tea on the top floor of the Madison building among researchers, teachers and government employees.
Jefferson’s books, his original library, was on display and I stood in awe of it. It was arrayed in a circular pattern, glass-covered shelves protecting the fragile volumes, and I felt like a kid again. Jefferson read these books—wrote notes in them, poured over them and learned from them.
Another display held remnants and material from early America and its natives and explorers. Yet another held the Mainz Bible and several other medieval religious texts. The architecture was spectacular and we stood dreamily looking up at columns and brocades, carved marble and circular windows.
We walked the tunnel back to the Capitol building and took the guided tour seeing Trumbull’s paintings and the extraordinary rotunda, the statuary, Speaker Boehner’s office and all of it. Then home to the table and the patio.
The Metro and D.C. are a lot of work, technically speaking. We had to be on our toes all the time and we were tired, so we split up our days and Wednesday, rather than return to the Capitol, we went to my old home in Hershey, PA.
Chocolate world has changed a bit from when I lived there in the 1970’s. The Hershey plant no longer allows tours, so they developed a kind of tourist trap. Located on the grounds with Hershey Park and the Hershey Stadium, Chocolate World is a ride and a series of attractions designed to teach folks how America’s most popular candy bar gets made. We did it all, including doing a chocolate tasting and making our own candy bars. A true waste of money, but one that Shannon said was her favorite part of the trip. Enough said.
I took the girls to find my old house up on a hill in Hummelstown, one exit down PA highway 322 from Hershey. It was easy to find and I was surprised at the flood of memories that came back. I’d live in PA again gladly if my family would. I loved it there.
Years ago, my mom made me a scrap book of old photographs from my childhood. In it, there is a photo of my brothers and I stuffing our faces with hot dogs and watermelon and slurping lemonade on a summer-time farm owned by our friends, the Hostetters. A PA Dutch family who attended our church, their children were friends of ours and in the picture, brother Jerry and I are clearly visible with our counterparts, Andy and Sam Hostetter. Andy was Jerry’s age and I can still see his face, though the scrap book got lost in one of our moves. I can see the quality of light playing off the cornfield as we sit at the picnic table, laughing and carrying on.
We’d left PA in 1975, but kept up with friends there. In 1979, we got word that Andy was riding his bicycle across Chocolate Avenue in Hershey and was hit by a car. He died at the scene. I’ve thought about that ever since it happened. I was 14 when he died. He was 16. The Hostetters asked permission to bury Andy in the cemetery adjacent to our church, which dates back before the Revolutionary war. They got permission and for the first time ever, I went in and found Andy’s grave. There was something healing about seeing it. His parents grave marker was placed below Andy’s, but their date of death has not been inscribed. They’re still alive, though I didn’t contact them.
Lying next to Andy is Ira Reed. Upstairs in one of my bookshelves, I have a Bible that was presented to me in 1974 by Pastor Ira O. Reed. He signed his name there in the Book and I still use that Bible. He was pastor of Derry Presbyterian Church while we attended. He died in 1998 and is buried along with his wife who survived him by seven years.
The breeze blew and the maple trees swayed as we walked among the historic cemetery and the grass moved easily beneath our feet. It was good to be back and when we were done, we got into the car and headed back to Catonsville.
Thursday was another metro whirlwind into D.C. where Sue’s master planning got us down to Smithsonian station and the mall. We toured the Smithsonian Museums of American and Natural history and we walked to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Monument on Flag Day, June 14. On our way back, we signed a birthday card with a calligraphy pen dedicated to the flag and Sue and Shannon donned tri-corn hats to pose with a National Park Ranger dressed for the occasion.
If I write about the Smithsonian, I’ll never stop. From Roberto Clemente’s Pirates uniform to the original Kermit the Frog puppet to a Paul Reed Smith guitar to Lincoln’s top hat, we saw and learned so much that exhaustion set in before we walked a mile.
Friday, we rented a bigger car so that we could drive comfortably with Aunt Virginia up to Amish country and Lancaster County, PA. Rolling hills, mild temperatures and Amish farms without electricity juxtaposed against a tourist Mecca of quilt shops and ice cream stands. We ate lunch at the Plain and Fancy, a place I’d been to before. Shannon loaded up on sugary sweets and fried food and got quite ill for about 10 minutes. She was fine after that-and not even that whiny.
Aunt Virginia took us to some of her favorite spots and we bought things we shouldn’t have and walked through an Amish garden that was as lush and beautiful as any polished English flower garden I’ve seen. Never have squash and tomatoes, beans and peppers been so beautiful.
Saturday, Sue once again mastered public transit and put us on the Baltimore Light Rail system. We rode into the Convention Center past Raven Stadium and Camden Yards to go to the National Aquarium, a place I’d been to before but that Shannon was excited to see. Between the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Aquarium, Shannon would have been satisfied if we’d done nothing else. She loved those places–add in Hershey, and she was in paradise.
Saturday was the second day of the Sailabration in Baltimore, marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. The city was jam packed, hard to navigate, as the Blue Angels performed over the inner harbor, which was itself packed with ships from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and even the Canadian Navy among others as residents and tourists took in the sites. The National Aquarium was also packed, but it is a fine species of aquarium and though it’s a little heavy on, “the earth is dying and it’s your fault” meme, it was a lot of fun.
By Sunday, we were worn out from touring, so we went to church with Aunt Virginia and I spent the afternoon catching up on some writing and deadlines at the local Starbuck’s. It was Father’s Day and the church had the Annapolis Bluegrass Coalition play rather than a sermon. They were excellent and grand.
That afternoon, off to cousin Marilyn’s and her husband Don where I reconnected with them, Marilyn’s son Brandon, his daughter, Layla, my cousin Craig and his son Nicholas and wife, Jenny. Brandon bbq’d and Marilyn cooked and bought crab and we ate too much, laughed too loud, played with the dogs and walked out onto the grass and talked the evening away. It was one of the best nights of the vacation.
Monday, our last day was Annapolis, MD. Annapolis is home to the Naval Academy, the State Capitol and a wonderfully historic town. It was the first peacetime National Capitol and in the statehouse, we went to see the sights. George Washington resigned his commission here and it was here that the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War was ratified. The walls of the old Capitol are brimming with stories and oddly, we were among the only tourists inside. The streets were near deserted and we walked along with an occasional soft misty rain falling.
Before the statehouse, we took a forty-minute boat tour of the Severn River and the Naval Academy and saw the coastline of Chesapeake Bay and soaked up the history of the academy.
Home that night to an extraordinary meal that my Aunt spent all day preparing. Among my greatest memories are that we were all taken care of by Aunt Virginia who was happy to have the company and was a great roommate. She was a spark of energy for us and she wanted to hear everything we’d done. She sat up late with us and told us stories of her life with my dad, her younger brother, and my uncle Karl, now deceased and sorely missed.
Tuesday morning, we awoke early at 5:30 and Aunt Virginia got up with us to say goodbye. We drove north to Philadelphia and back to the airport to the Virgin America plane to Los Angeles. Home again—and there’s no more to say.
Except I barely scratched the surface. Traveling with Sue, Shannon and Laurie may well have become my very favorite pastime. I cannot think of another way I’d rather spend a summer.
It’s good to be home, gentles.
- The parliament of whores itself-Capitol Hill. We took the tour, did the rounds. Good times
Yep-the archaeologists and historians found the outhouse at Franklin’s house. Good times. Studying the feces of our Founding Fathers is fascinating business.