Friday, November 26, 2010

Touring Historic Colonial America

Betty and Chuck Kaiser at the White House

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
to the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America, My home sweet home.

Thanks to a recent historical tour of America, I’m singing a patriotic song this Thanksgiving. Many of you have visited the battlefields and monuments of the founding fathers, heroes and presidents that shaped our country. I had not. So come along with me for a few highlights of my historical refresher course.

In late September, my husband and I flew into Dulles airport, hired a limo (same price as a taxi!) and drove to Washington D.C. Our driver was from Bangladesh and upon hearing that we had never been to the area, he slowed down and gave us a little geography lesson that enlightened and gave us great respect for this young immigrant. 

The next morning, we met the 48 other passengers who would be joining us on a 14-night historical America tour. Our fellow tourists came from every corner of No. America — including Canada. Most had already been to D.C. We were the rookies.

Our first couple of days was spent touring D.C. It was everything that we thought it would be. The Washington Monument was overwhelming. The obelisk, built in 1849 as a tribute to George Washington’s military leadership during the American Revolution, dominates the D.C. landscape. Even at night, you can see all 555 ft. 5.5 inches of it shining like a bright beacon. It is breathtaking.

Every monument and national park was significant and touching. This Veteran’s Day was especially meaningful because of our visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Its elegant simplicity compels reverence for those who sacrificed their lives to build our country. There are 300,000 people buried there but only two presidents: William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy. The headstones that eloquently line the acreage are mostly ordinary servicemen and women.

The day we were there a busload of veterans from WWII arrived to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Despite their age and infirmities, the men and women (proudly wearing hats from their respective branch of service) clutched canes, pushed walkers and rode in wheelchairs to pay their respects. Their presence was a sobering reminder of the faithful who serve this country today.

It was crowded and hot at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Three million people visit the simple structure yearly. I stopped, picked up a picture of a young man in uniform and read a letter resting at the base of the wall. Written in pencil, on lined notebook paper, it said, “Dear great-grandpa, I’m sorry we have to meet this way. I’m sure I would have loved you and you me.”

We visited the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments at night. One in marble, the other bronze, each was larger than life but also very lifelike. Nearby, the WWII memorial with its arches, 56 pillars, and a grand fountain was very grand and ornate. It had almost an art deco feel to it. The Freedom Wall on the west side of the memorial has 4,048 stars; each one represents100 Americans who died in that war. It is the horrendous cost of freedom.

I was not prepared for the emotional impact of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Seen at night, it eerily reproduces a squad of 19 lantern-carrying soldiers on patrol. Dimly lit in the shadows, the stainless steel statues, wearing windblown ponchos appear to be slogging through the rugged terrain. The fear and fatigue in their eyes is palpable and sent chills down my spine. How could we not honor the combat bravery of these men?

It was almost a relief to put memorials and monuments behind us as we headed out on a bright sunny day for the White House and the U.S. Capitol building. We were disappointed that President Obama’s schedule was too busy to give us a guided tour but enjoyed getting an up close view of the official residence and principal workplace of the president and legislators of the United States. It was another one of those goose-bump experiences to realize how close we were to the seat of democracy.

Leaving D.C., I enjoyed the beautiful the countryside. The days that followed went by too quickly. We visited both Mt. Vernon and Monticello. I expected to love Monticello because it was the home of Jefferson but Mt. Vernon won hands down. Sited on the Potomac, its story of renovation and family life was told by docents and punctuated by historical outbuildings. Loved it!

I found the historic triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown fascinating. The grit and determination of the residents of Jamestown, first capital of the Virginia colony, is unimaginable. Its location on a swampy, isolated site with limited hunting and farming space was made even worse by the lack of potable drinking water. Poor leadership compounded problems with hostile Indians, starvation, typhoid and salt poisoning from the swamp water. It was a hard life.

Later, Williamsburg was named the colonial Capital. Today, both places have been designated National Historic Sites. There are teepees, a blacksmith pounding nails, a musket loading demonstration, chickens hiding in the kitchen and a young woman tanning a deerskin for a dress. We toured Williamsburg in a horse drawn carriage; listened to debate re-enactments; and enjoyed a guided tour at the Abby Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Other notable stops were beautiful Harper’s Ferry (John Brown’s raid on Armory); an unforgettable guided tour of Gettysburg (Civil War’s bloodiest battle), Philadelphia (Declaration of Independence; Liberty Bell), Boston (Paul Revere) and more. Time just flew by. Too soon it was time to say goodbye to our new friends in New York City at the Statue of Liberty. It seemed a fitting ending to a wonderful journey.

God bless America!

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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