Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Old Dominion
Mrs. Rants and I recently returned from a week's vacation spent down in Virginia. The main reason we went was to attend a family reunion (on my side) taking place the first part of the week (in Virginia Beach) and the rest of the time we used to road trip around the state.

First off, if driving down there from NH, you're required to choose one of two miserable options to get to where you want to go. Either take I-95 through New Jersey, around Baltimore, around DC, and down through the bedroom town megalopolis that is Northern Virginia (with guaranteed delays, stop & go traffic, and slow-speed construction zones to contend with). Your other option is to drive through the Amish-like timewarp that marks the landscape of Delaware and the rest of the Delmarva peninsula (end result is to pay big $$$$ to drive over the cool Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel). Sure you'll see less traffic, but you'll also grow tired pretty quick of seeing Tyson chicken farms and fields of corn and soybeans. Nevertheless, we opted to marvel the Delmarva and so enamored were we by the sights that my wife slept through most of Maryland. Oh well, she didn't miss much...

In any case, we did reach Virginia Beach and by and large we liked the layout of the area. The beach had its share of honky-tonk but for the most part it retained some touch of class - the beachfront was not entirely infested with tattoo parlors. Indeed, entertainment for the beachgoing masses was provided by the US Military - thundering F/A-18 Super Hornets (based at nearby Oceana Naval Air Station) streaking overhead every 10 minutes or so. Interestingly enough, the arrival to the area of the Super Hornets (replacing the aged F-14 Tomcats of Top Gun fame) created a regional controversy - pitting supporters of the jets against neighbors who haven't taken as kindly to the new machinery. The issue has to do with the loudness of the jet engines - the Super Hornet is quite a lot louder than the older Tomcat. Encroaching development in recent years has also brought additional people into the area - with housing developments abutting the boundaries of the base. Supporters generally consider the increased loudness to be the sound of freedom and enthusiastically proclaim the bumper sticker I (heart) Jet Noise on their vehicles.

Coincidentally enough, my sister's husband is a navy pilot and he does rattle the neighborhood windows on occasion. We were graciously treated to a tour of the base and got to take a look at one of these F/A-18s up close. Simply awesome experience, sitting in the hangar looking out the open doors at plane after plane taking off in a fury of roar and jet flame. Early that evening, back at the family barbecue, we happened to meet another pilot who is stationed at the base. These guys are really unassuming and if seated next to them at a baseball game you would never guess what their occupation is. Interestingly enough, they tend not to embellish their exploits when asked by a civilian how it must be to fly one of these planes - they know that they have cool jobs and do extraordinary things. It goes without saying. However, needless to say, they also know that after meeting them, you'll be the one to gloss up the stories with colorful descriptions and boasting. They know you'll tell others that "Hey, I know a jet pilot". They know they'll be the talk at cocktail parties (when you need to use them as your conversational Ace in the Hole). They probably also know that they'll be blogged about - like now. I am sure the wow factor is their trump card and keeps people tolerating the jet noise.

Several days later, we left the area and moved on. Up to this point we had no concrete plan. We had a two night reservation at a campsite just outside of Richmond, but other than that the days were open. We knew on the way down that we'd drive around, and if we felt like it, tour some Civil War sites. I'm not, you might say, a Civil War junkie, but I do have interest and appreciation in the topic. I was clueless about the War up until several years ago when I devoted several months to reading historian Shelby Foote's three volume (and 3000 page) narrative on the conflict. Upon concluding that reading I was hooked. Mrs. Rants understood my interest in the topic and she herself was willing to tour the preserved locations of some of the most notable battlefields of the conflict - many of them of course located right in Virginia. She had her own reasons for going too: she loves the Virginia countryside, has an interest in history herself, and after reading Confederates in the Attic - a great narrative about hanging out with contemporary Confederate and Union re-enactors (many of them slightly bit nutty) hoped to see if some might be in costume there seeking to experience a "period rush".

Over the course of a warm and sunny southern afternoon, we followed the driving tour of four major battlefields - beginning at Fredericksburg (a Union loss), on to Chancellorsville (site of another Union loss), moving on to Wilderness Battlefield (billed as a stalemate though the Union suffered more casualties) and ending at the rural, peaceful setting of Spotsylvania (another stalemate and also the site of ferocious Union casualties). The sites themselves varied in terms of what state of preservation they were in: Fredericksburg was tiny (hemmed in by a downtown and major roads), Chancellorsville and Wilderness were essentially a few fields lined along a two-lane divided state highway. Spotsylvania was the most preserved with virtually no development or major roads slicing through. To best assist the understanding of what took place, National Park Service employees offered walking tours where they explained the bloody events that took place at these locations. These tour guides were superb, and their enthusiasm, storytelling abilities, and knowledge helped bring to life the history embedded at each of these sites. They helped immeasurably with the task of imagining what had taken place - pointing out treelines where thousands would have stood - lined up several rows deep firing a hailstorm of lead at their opponents. Cannons were placed at the locations they occupied during the conflicts - assisting the task of seeing gorgeous green Virginia countryside and transforming it into an imaginary scene of hell that at one time was not imaginary at all - but all too real.

Of all the day's sites, there is one experience I will never forget. Located within Wilderness Battlefield is a pulloff to a place called Ellwood. The present-day scene is stunning - rolling Virginia countryside, farms, trees & fields. A fine looking house surrounded by stately oak trees graces this area. A small path takes you no more than 100 yards out to the edge of a cornfield and near it a lone tree standing guard over a single gravestone. There is no person buried here - yet what remains lie here are singularly felt by Southerners past and present. The spot is both a remembrance of valor as well as a remembrance of defeat - that the remembered event marked the Confederacy's doom. What was here? Well, General Stonewall Jackson, a name of history, was perhaps the South's ablest and most daring warrior. During the battle of Chancellorsville, Gen. Jackson engaged a flanking attack against the Union foe that remains to this day one of the most daring feats in the entire history of warfare. In the very moment of highest victory, with nightfall descending and the confusion of fog and smoke swirling, Jackson was shot at by his own forces. His wounds were significant - requiring immediate attention. Doctors attended to Jackson and to stave off infection - amputated the General's arm. Jackson was moved further south towards Richmond - his arm remained behind and was taken into custody by a local family for proper handling. Jackson remained alive for several days, sometimes showing signs of improvement and recovery. However, it was not to last; a short while later he developed pneumonia and died. The news shocked all in the South - they knew he could not be replaced. Many felt that when he died, so did the fortunes of the South with him. Thinking back on this, I looked down at the gravestone and recognized the hallowed-ness of this ground. The grave is the resting spot of that severed arm; the arm that once commanded thousands into battle - the arm of a man forever known as Stonewall.

Changing speeds (several times over as you'll see), we touristed another attraction: Paramount's King's Dominion theme park. I should have begged off from going, not because I am afraid of roller coasters, but because I was a touch hung over (slung back Jack Daniels and cola sitting by the previous night's campfire). Man, I was getting the cold sweats. Ooof. Oddly enough, we showed up at the park at 9AM only to be greeted by locked gates and empty parking lots. Was this place shut down? We inquired at a Burger King across the street, What's the deal? We found out that the place doesn't open till 10AM! What kind of theme park opens so late in the morning? Is it because we're in the South and things are a bit slower? We sat in our car waiting for the front gate to open. This gave me some time to chug water and catch a needed nap. Finally the gates opened and we were allowed to proceed onward to the parking lot. Having arrived so early we were able to park in the closest lot to the walk-up entrance - only to be greeted by more locked gates! Its like being a salmon trying to get up a fish ladder - move forward into the next room and figure it all out before you can move up to the next waiting room. Finally they let us through that checkpoint and on we stepped through into the Main Street midway. We headed straight over to one of the heralded puke rides, only to be blocked by another gate and security guard. The big rides don't start until 10:30! What is the point of all this? Is this some maddening effort at crowd control? Had someone performed a flow analysis and determined that this was the best way to direct the paying customers efficiently? Man, it was ridiculous. Already we've spent an hour and a half at this place and I hadn't even got a chance to dine on a funnel cake. They were failing their mission to amuse!

10:30 hit and we were on our way. The first line we waited in was not that long, and the ride was one of those coasters that shoot you out at top speed straight up a vertical ramp. We strapped into the death car and coursed around the track to the launch area - one of those locations where they display some lights and purposefully delay you so as best to encourage your thinking (worrying) brain to jack up your pulse. BOOM! I swear to you, the ignition was beyond any roller coaster speed I've experienced. This was a whiplash ride and nothing more. In the first few milliseconds you've already whipsawed through several G's above and below the force of gravity. Hungover, I didn't think I was going to puke so much as have a heart attack - one of those victims you hear about on the news in the summertime about how they failed to heed the ride's warnings about "People with medical conditions, high blood pressure, people who are pregnant should not board the ride". They failed to mention what people who drank too much the night before should do! With it all over, we stepped down from car - a contraption Charon would be proud of - and walked away from the ride. Usually the first ride is the best, but both of us were unsure of the experience. Had we been entertained, pleasantly terrified, or were we both thinking that by some miracle we simply happened to avoid injury? When you're left thinking about the ride's safety after exiting the ride, that tells you that this is a ride you no longer ride....

So we spent the day at King's Dominion, or I should say a half day because for the most part we were not impressed with the place. It could have been that we weren't in the mood for a theme park, but in truth we felt that many of the rides were not that entertaining. Sure many of them tried to be, but in our estimation the roller coasters weren't that smooth and far too often the launches overused the new method of magnetic propulsion. What ever happened to the big incline and chain pulling you up? Yes, it's predictable, but that is the point. It allows you time to get psyched up for the big first drop. If you're launched 0-75mph right from the start - you're denied that fundamental pleasure of roller coasters. It's violating a sacred principle.

Back on the road, we headed north and to New England. We did make one last stop and that was to visit Gettysburg - the largest and most pivotal battle of the Civil War. We headed off the main road and into town - trailing a car decked out in Confederate regalia, Stars & Bars, and all manner of Rebel pride. To top it off the driver was decked out in period costume. This was an obvious signal that we were headed into some kind of cultural and historical ground zero. Upon entering the area, your first impression of the battlefield is its considerable scale - especially when compared to the preserved state of other battlefields we had previously visited. Packed tour buses and hundreds on bicycles crowded the narrow roads that crossed the various segments of the military park. We pulled into the visitor's center and contended with the regiments that flowed in and out of the entrance - boy scout troupes, family outings, elder hostel tours, and other interested masses. Our original plan had been to hike segments of the park, but being there in person you gain an acceptance of the scale and the recognition that to truly understand Gettysburg it is better to take advantage of the more sensible options offered by the park staff: narrated tour bus, hire your own personal guide, or buy one of the self guided audio tours to play in your car. We opted for this last option and at the end of the day we were glad that we did.

The park is laid out as several driving tours on roads that are often one-way. These roads traverse every major element of the park - including notable features such as the Devil's Den, Little Round Top, and Seminary & Cemetery Ridges. Flagstones and monuments mark exact positions of various state regiments that made up each opposing force. The audio tour was synchronized to our driving speed so that each place we approached would be explained by narration and dramatization (with gun/cannon-fire, rebel yells, bugles, and the like). All of this helped, because for the most part it is difficult to look out across a ordinary looking pasture and imagine that in a different time this place was an extraordinary killing field. Mrs. Rants and I did not sense the presence of ghosts or spirits. I do not believe that the dead haunt these grounds. What I did appreciate was the buzz of activity that was taking place in realtime at this place. Buses, cars, motorcycles and people everywhere. Re-enactors at specific locations, marching in column, firing guns, or lounging in camp. Diehards, dressed up in period uniforms on their own accord, walked the grounds channeling their own visions, all in pursuit of attaining a period rush - the sought after high that comes when the seeker transcends the boundaries of time and history. It must not be forgotten - Gettysburg was a battlefield - a scene of intense human business. A riot of horses, wagons, carts, infantry, cavalry, officers, artillery, guns, food animals, flags, drummers, buglers, fifers, campfires, cussing, rebel yells, valiant, yet hopeless charges, bloody cries, and prayers for mercy. It was not a place of silence then and it would be completely out of place now if a visitor to the park was not treated to the same noisy madness and swarm of human activity. The tour buses, cars, boisterous families, cannon and gunfire demonstrations, the motorcycles, the restless conversations of the visitors - this was wholly conducive to the imagining of what might have been. Gettysburg was a symphony of chaos then and remains so now. This is entirely fitting.

And so we headed home. We find road trips fun and this one didn't fail to entertain. We saw a lot and learned a lot. Visitng a place, you wonder if its a place you could move to and live in. For the most part we liked Virginia - the land is amazing lush in vegetation. However, it's hard to know what kind of culture you'd find there after the surface-level perceptions wear off and are replaced with harder won knowledge. Fittingly, given all the attention paid to understanding the Civil War, I returned to the confines of New England confident and comfortable in my Yankee-ness (identity-wise; not having to do with baseball I assure you). In a different time, some from NH descended down to Old Dominion and never returned. However, in this present day I do believe that given the great ease which marked our own return, their loss was not in vain and that their sacrifice is not forgotten. They, from New Hampshire and elsewhere, had helped create a more perfect union.


At 8:04 AM, Anonymous Mrs. Rants said...

I highly recommend reading "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger YouWho's wife said...

Growing up in Maryland, I've been to King's Dominion many times (though not in the last 10 years). Man, just thinking about it makes me want to ride the Rebel Yell backwards. :) No loops or anything, but hearing that wood creak always scaried me.


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