Friday, August 07, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, The End

Day 5:

Walden Pond – To be a transcendentalist was to be, in a lot of ways, pretty friggin’ awesome. If my general readership is anything like my American Literature students, the term “transcendentalist” might as well be in a foreign language for how much meaning it holds. But for guys like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the original transcendentalists, it was a way of life more than a philosophy. In Thoreau’s case, it took him out into the woods for two years.

One of the cornerstones of the transcendentalist philosophy is a love for nature, so in 1845 Thoreau built a little cabin on a patch of woodsy land owned by Emerson so that he could spend some legitimate time with nature. It had, he thought, lessons to teach him about simplicity and beauty. After two years out there he got what he wanted to get out of the experience, and returned to real life in Concord, Massachusetts, just a short distance from the Pond where he’d been living.

That pond was our first stop on the way home, and immediately Amy and I could tell how Thoreau could learn about beauty here. Walden is just a small kettle hole surrounded by trees, but the water itself some of the clearest I’ve ever seen. There’s a trail along the outskirts of the pond, and about a half-mile back is the location of Thoreau’s cabin. Considering it was built from questionable wood a century and a half ago, the actual structure is long-gone. In its place now are small concrete markers that show the general dimensions of the one-room structure, as well as where the woodshed would’ve been out back.

About ten yards to the left of the cabin site is the area believed to have been the cabin site for years before a professional came in and found the real thing. I’ve got to admit that for a wild guess they did a pretty good job. At the incorrect cabin site are stacks and stacks of stones that people bring from all over the world to place there, some of which were marked with people’s names and birth/death dates. I’m guessing the families of big-time Thoreau fans would bring those stones and place them there as a final sendoff to a loved one. Considering it just so happened to be Amy’s dad’s birthday, she added a small stone to the pile as well.

On the walk back we had an issue with a broken walkway that resulted in relatively wet feet for us travelers, and we bumped into an overweight skinny-dipping soprano loudly humming some medieval melody. We were sort of in the area furthest from the entrance, but yeesh! Those were breasts I could’ve died perfectly happy having never seen.

Like Thoreau, we had seen what we’d come to see, and it was time for us to head to Concord. Having only been on the road for a little over an hour, we’d already seen way more than our fair share of beauty for one day.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – No, not that Sleepy Hollow. The cemetery used as a backdrop for Washington Irving’s famous story about the Headless Horseman is actually in New York. But that doesn’t mean this particular Sleepy Hollow doesn’t boast its own little claim to fame. Up on Author’s Ridge are buried four legendary American authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne (author of “The Scarlet Letter”), and Louisa May Alcott (author of “Little Women”).

Click HERE for More Concord Pictures!

The difference between Thoreau’s and Emerson’s headstones was almost laughable. Thoreau has a tiny traditional marker about the size of a school textbook, with only the word “Henry” etched in the middle. Emerson, on the other hand, lies beneath a five-foot-tall slab of what appeared to be (I’m no geologist) quartz, with an impressive metal plaque at eye level. These two guys were like best buds, but clearly Emerson had a little more cash to deal with his postmortem living quarters.

Alcott and Hawthorne have stones similarly modest to Thoreau, with Alcott’s being nothing more than a small brick with her name on it laying even with the surface of the grass. What was cool to see was all the trinkets left at these graves. Thoreau had a little wooden fife, Hawthorne a silver cross necklace, and Alcott a number of different flowers and pens.

It may not have been THE Sleepy Hollow, but it brought up the rear very nicely on our weeklong tour of famous graves. At the end of it all, the list looks like this:

Ben Franklin
Betsy Ross
John Hancock
Samuel Adams
Paul Revere
The Five Victims of the Boston Massacre
John Hawthorne (Witch Trials Judge)
William Bradford (Plymouth Governor) and other Pilgrims
John Adams
Abigail Adams
John Quincy Adams
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Louisa May Alcott
Nathaniel Hawthorne

I wouldn’t say we’re obsessed with dead people, just interested in sharing the same space as some American legends. Damn, that’s a list, isn’t it?

Homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott – The night before Amy and I had discussed the possibility of making a stop on the way home. It was going to be an awesome stop, but in order to have time for it we’d have to cut some things out of our original plans in Concord. The Awesome Stop happened later that day, but it came at the expense of the Emerson and Alcott homes.

Emerson’s place is, quite simply, an old white house kept in immaculate condition. We peeked in the windows a little bit but really didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. Inside, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar” and a host of other essays that made him the 19th Century’s most famous thinker.

Down the road is Alcott’s Orchard House, where she both wrote and pressed “Little Women.” Personally, I never liked the book, being a man and all, so we just took a quick little walk around the grounds and scooted. Would these tours have been historically worthwhile? Probably. Was spending time there more important than the Awesome Stop we’d hoped to visit later in the day? Nope. Not a chance. So while we would’ve loved to get more out of these places, we didn’t, and I refuse to regret that.

Old North Bridge, Site of “The Shot Heard Round the World” – Unofficially, the last stop of our vacation in Massachusetts, the Old North Bridge wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it would be. For some reason I was under the impression that we’d drive over it, but that wasn’t the case. After doing some walking we found our way to the place where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.

As a result of those shots a battle ensued, which the American Minutemen won. We know how the rest of the war panned out. USA! USA! USA!

North Bridge spans the Concord River, and on one side is the famous Minuteman statue meant to commemorate the “Shot Heard Round the World” that happened at the spot where it now stands. On the other bank is a memorial to the British soldiers who died, as well as an obelisk commemorating where the bridge stood before it was rebuilt in 1875. It’s been rebuilt three other times since then, the most recent in the 1940s. So the bridge that’s there isn’t the real bridge, but you can’t fudge the history. In some ways, it was in that spot where the United States of American got started. It was also in that spot that our vacation ended.

Well, sort of…

Baseball Hall of Fame – There was no way Amy and I were driving 18 straight hours back home, so we’d made plans to stay the night about halfway there, in Erie, Pennsylvania. I made the reservations on Priceline for some ridiculously low price, so whatever we did the rest of this day we just needed to make sure we’d make it to Erie by bedtime. After breezing through Concord all morning, Amy and I decided to take a very small detour to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While only about a half hour out of our way, the drive was long and winding through the rain, and as we got further and further away from the tollway I found myself wondering where the hell we were going. Sure, there were signs for Cooperstown the whole way, but the drive is like 50 miles of two-lane highway through Nowheresville, New York. At one point Amy asked me why the Hall of Fame was even located in Cooperstown. I had to admit that, at the time, I didn’t know.

Click HERE for More Cooperstown Pictures!

Turns out that a committee in the early 20th Century was put together for the sole purpose of nailing down where the modern game of baseball was invented. The final consensus led the committee to Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. So there you have it.

In any event, finally driving into Cooperstown was like entering an entirely new dimension. All of a sudden everything was beautiful and green and quaint, with the Hall right smack dab in the middle of Main Street. We quickly parked (for free, by the way), and headed inside to the place where baseball legend goes to live on.

Amy was most enamored with the Babe Ruth section, but not because it housed his uniform or the bat from his 60th home run or the bat from his called shot homer, but because it had a book he signed the night he died, certified by a letter from the nurse on duty that night. Just like a woman to find the sentimentality in a building filled with manly baseball stuff, right?

Some of my favorites included Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run balls, the mitts of Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the No-Hitter wall, which spans an entire end of one room with the baseballs and photographs of every no-hitter in baseball history. For Nolan Ryan, who threw seven of them, they have an extra display with his game hats.

For Barry Bonds, who broke Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2006, they’ve got a case with memorabilia from that memorable season. The fan that caught the ball, however, sent it to the Hall only after having an asterisk emblazoned in the leather. For those unfamiliar with baseball, Bonds is very, very likely a one-time steroid user, meaning his prestigious home run record is questionable. The asterisk thing was awesome. Not only did the guy have the audacity to put that symbol on there, but the Hall of Fame actually put the thing on display.

The place is just littered with baseball history—memorabilia from Stan Musial, Micky Mantle, Ernie Banks, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Lou Gherig, Cy Young... it just goes on and on and on. It wasn’t the Field of Dreams (which I’ve also been to), but it was just as magical an experience. Any baseball purist needs to make the trek out east because it’s totally worth it. People wear the hats and jerseys of their favorite team and the gift shop alone is worth the trip.

I, of course, wore a Sox shirt and Sox hat and took pictures with the old pinwheel from the original Comiskey Park scoreboard, as well as the hat Freddy Garcia wore the final game of the World Series in 2005. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Chicago stuff, right?

We had a great time, not just at Cooperstown but for the entire trip. We went home absolutely exhausted, but this was a sight-seeing vacation, not a sit-by-the-beach-and-drink-pina-coladas vacation. Besides, as teachers we’d get plenty of time to relax when we finished the rest of our drive home.

The only problem we’ve got now is, since we did so much in our week out east, how much history is there left for us to discover?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Amy & Joel Across America, Part 9

William Bradford’s Grave – Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation” is probably the most famous and most detailed primary source we have of the Pilgrims’ early experience in the New World, but we don’t credit this guy just for being an interesting author. He was also the governor that held the new settlement together through some ridiculously tough times.

He’s buried in the town’s oldest cemetery, Burial Hill, which overlooks Cape Cod and the rest of the town of Plymouth. Fittingly, he’s got one of the largest headstones on the grounds, but even that doesn’t come close to showing the sort of appreciation he deserves. For goodness sake, the tallest gravestone we saw all trip was for the parents of Benjamin Franklin. And they didn’t do anything but give birth to the guy!

As for Bradford, it was never the plan for him to become governor of Plymouth, but when the man who was originally appointed died within the first year, Bradford was the logical guy to take over. This was a guy who, despite being devoutly religious, was able to put out some pretty violent orders to maintain the safety and stability of his colony. His wife died before she even got off the boat. Perhaps worst of all, at least to Bradford, what had started as a strictly religious colony became less and less so as more Anglican Englanders made the trip over.

The guy had guts, though, like a lot of these early settlers, and his job was the farthest thing from an easy one. You’ve got to wonder how things might’ve been different were he not there to hold it all together. Would we even have a Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II to visit today? Maybe, but probably not. But possibly. Most likely. Or not…

The Adams Family Tomb – On the way back to the car, Amy and I plucked a decent-sized stone from the Plymouth shoreline to take home with us. Why would we do such a thing? To display Plymouth Rock prominently on our bookshelf. Okay, so it’s not THE Plymouth Rock, but it’s definitely a rock from Plymouth. We had fun doing it, okay?

On the way back towards Boston we made a stop at a church in Quincy, which is where John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Catherine Adams all are buried. We were absolutely wiped out from a long on foot in the sun, but this was right on the way and seemed like something we should do. It ended up being the most solemn experience of the week.

Click HERE for More Pictures!

Walking up to United First Parish Church you’d never guess that it houses a family tomb that includes the bodies of two presidents. Inside it’s a beautiful old church, and there were a couple of older docents there giving tours. We had come towards the end of the day, so while the older woman was talking to a group in the actual church, we chatted up the kindly old gent who waited with us to get things started. After having asked about our reason for coming we told him we were teachers with voracious appetites for history and how almost the entire vacation was devoted to taking in as much of it as we could before going home.

He sort of looked at the other tour group in the church and finally said, “I’ll just take you down to the crypt.” So that’s what we did. The thing about our tour guide was that he took his job very seriously, and I’m positive that had a strong effect on how seriously Amy and I took the whole experience as well. He told us that every morning he’d come down to the tombs and thank to second and sixth president for the opportunity to do what he does. This guy was extremely solemn and patriotic fellow, so we did absolutely everything we could to be as respectful as possible.

The tomb is just a little room with four gigantic granite boxes that hold the caskets of the Adams. We found out that earlier that day some direct descendants of the family had been there to celebrate John Quincy’s birthday. President Obama had personally sent a wreath of flowers that was now sitting atop JQ’s tomb. We were, to say the least, pretty bummed we’d missed out on that, but just being in a room with two dead presidents was in itself emotionally overwhelming.

On the way out, the docent offered Amy a flower from the presidential wreath. He wanted us to share the experience with our students, and for Amy to show the flower to her students. It was an extremely benevolent gesture and we of course accepted. We’ve got no idea where to put this flower, but how do you turn down something like that?

When we stepped back and looked at the long list of graves we’d visited over the course of the week it was difficult not to label these particular ones as the most memorable. Few people had as much to do with shaping early America than John Adams, and his wife Abigail was one of the first real feminists. John Q. was no hack, either, so just being there, in a church no less, was about as solemn as a tourist attraction gets.

Brigham’s Restaurant – My family comes from Massachusetts. There are Brighams spread out all over the country, but probably the strongest concentration of them is out East, where the original Brigham set foot on American soil a long, long time ago. As a result there’s a really famous Brigham hospital in Boston, as well as almost a full page of other Brigham’s listed in the Boston phone book. Perhaps the most famous of all, though, is Brigham’s Ice Cream.

There was absolutely no way I was going home without tasting the stuff, so our last evening meal in Massachusetts took us like 30 minutes from our hotel to find the nearest Brigham’s. It’s sort of like a fancy Culver’s, with burgers and fried goods and, of course, ice cream for dessert. We ordered whatever and did the ice cream thing, which was good, but we definitely had more fun taking pictures of and with everything labeled “Brigham” in the entire building. The poor teenagers working the till must’ve thought we’d escaped from some sort of mental facility. We probably could’ve pulled the name thing and gotten some free stuff, but we didn’t want too many people asking for autographs and all that. The girl didn’t even blink when I busted out the Brigham credit card. So much for celebrity. And, as it would happen, so much for Boston. We’d be leaving in the morning, but not after a few more stops on the way home.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 8

National Monument to the Forefathers – Our last full day in Massachusetts took us an hour down the coast to Plymouth, which is where the Pilgrims eventually settled after coming over to America on the Mayflower. It’s one of the most fabled stories in our history, and that’s why someone built an 81-foot monument in the middle of a huge grass park hidden towards the back of modern-day Plymouth.

As far as monuments go, this one is friggin’ ornate. The centerpiece is a toga-clad personification of “Faith,” which is flanked by four smaller figures meant to represent Freedom, Morality, Law, and Education. Higher up are two huge lists of those aboard the Mayflower etched in marble, and the many other small details are too tedious and too many to spend more time on.

Built in 1888 it was originally designed to be almost twice as tall, but the whole point was to have it face Plymouth Harbor and be dedicated to those men and women that braved the Atlantic Ocean to start a colony in the New World. For us it was a precursor to the rest of the day in Plymouth, which would prove to be one of the coolest things we did all trip.

Plymouth Rock – What better place to head next than the most famous stone in America? Growing up both Amy and I were taught that this rock was the place where the Pilgrims first disembarked to start their colony. So what if that’s not exactly true? This was Plymouth Rock, people! A rock!

Okay, I’m being a little facetious. It really was pretty cool to stand right at the shore and look out on the water, knowing that almost 400 years ago the Pilgrims stepped off a boat and decided that this was the place they’d live for the rest of their lives. When they landed in 1620 they had almost no idea what was out there, other than the Natives who very likely would make things as difficult as possible for them.

A few times on our trip I would be inspired to stop myself and just imagine the history happening before me, and this was one of those times. Granted, nowhere in Plymouth governor William Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation” does he mention a rock, but it’s been generally accepted that the rock has always been there. It might not have been the first place they landed, but it was a landmark for incoming ships looking for Plymouth Harbor.

The Pilgrims didn’t even land at the rock and then immediately set up shop. The first land they saw was the tail of Massachusetts, and then they spent a month on the boat while search parties scouted the area for a desirable settlement location. Bradford’s wife, for example, lasted the boat trip over from Holland, but died before Plymouth was chosen as home base.

So yeah, Plymouth Rock isn’t quite the icon some history books have made it out to be, but it was still a cool moment to stare out at the cape and imagine the Mayflower moored somewhere out there. Then to turn around and see the high sloping hill where the colony was started… well, it was just a cool moment. And it was free.

Plimoth Plantation – The replica Wampanoag village and Plimoth settlement a couple miles down the road was not free, however, but despite the relatively steep price (nothing was more expensive on this trip except the Red Sox tickets), it was absolutely worth the price.

Set up exactly three miles to the south of where the real Plymouth colony was founded, Plimoth Plantation is essentially a living museum meant to resemble that colony as closely as possible as it would’ve been in 1627. We were told that the English village was actually built in 1950s and is about one-third as big as the original would’ve been. Actor/Historians come from all over the country to be part of this project, so not only is every building and tool and food item on site totally authentic to the era, but the “colonists” who reside there (from 9am-5pm) know what the hell they’re talking about.

These people stay in character the whole time, so any question they’re asked they come back with an answer pretty close to what a Pilgrim would have actually said. For example we asked one guy what he was cooking for lunch, and he looked at us as if he’d never heard the word. Because he never would’ve heard the word. Back then it was called dinner, so when I corrected myself he was able to answer me properly.

Then, trying to catch him with a question that would throw him off, I asked about religion. Because I teach this Puritan stuff to my American Lit students, I tossed out a little diddy that went something like, “What’s it like living in a Puritan community considering you didn’t come here as a Puritan?” Then I sort of leaned back and smirked. That will show him.

Except he went off for like seven or eight minutes on how offensive it was to call him a Puritan instead of a Separatist, and then explaining why he feels the way he does and how much the religion has helped him and philosophically how the whole thing works for the people at Plymouth. It was nuts. When it came time for my rebuttal I was like, “Cool. Enjoy your dinner,” and Amy and I just sort of nodded and left. Dude wasn’t rude or anything, but he definitely showed me. I dare him to talk me about basketball, though.

The other cool thing about this place was the Wampanoag home site, where the Native people that wear authentic garb and spent their days doing authentic Nativey things, actually are descendents of the area’s Wampanoag people. They dress the part, but don’t have to stay in character the way the Plymouth actors do. You just ask them what you’re thinking and they answer. The guy we talked to new literally everything about the area and its history, so we spent about thirty straight minutes chatting him up. It would’ve been a great place to take kids for a field trip. It’s only an 18-hour drive. Totally worth it, right?

Those two things combined kept us busy for a solid four hours, and if we hadn’t been starving it’s very likely we would’ve stayed longer. When we found the whole place is a non-profit facility and the only thing keeping it going was the steep admissions price, we didn’t feel so bad. Still, we could’ve spent the day at Six Flags for that kind of bread. But this wasn’t a Six Flags sort of vacation. It was about learning, and dammit, we certainly did plenty of that.

Mayflower II – After lunch at a seafood place back in Plymouth, a lunch in which I demolished my first entire lobster for the low, low price of $18, we walked to a replica of the Mayflower moored at State Pier, available for self-guided tours.

Anybody can build a boat that looks sort of old-ish and boat-ish, but to create a faithful reproduction of the Mayflower, which was a well-used boat even when the Pilgrims got to it in 1620, requires a lot of research and specialized builders. Built all the way back in 1955, this particular replica was done the right way.

Plimoth Plantation had wanted a replica of the famous boat for some time, and actually had commissioned a specialized ship builder to put together blueprints for one and start building it. The guy they hired did meticulous research about ships of the era and combed primary sources for any information about the original Mayflower, then he combined all that information and made what would prove to be the most accurate replica blueprint to date.

What P.P. didn’t know was that an English organization wanted to build a replica Mayflower as well and actually recreate the journey across the Atlantic. They just didn’t quite have the funding to do it, and had no idea where they’d permanently moor the boat when the voyage was over. Naturally, this group, called Project Mayflower, joined up with Plimoth Plantation and made it all happen.

Before sailing across the ocean, as the Pilgrims did, Project Mayflower had to make the blueprints into a tangible boat, and they did so as authentically as possible. The accuracy of this vessel went down to every minute detail—carefully chosen English oak timbers, hand-made nails, hand-sewn linen canvas sails, real hemp cordage, and exactly the sort of Stockholm tar used by ship builders in the 17th Century.

Today, the boat is still seaworthy (it sailed to Rhode Island in 2002), but it’s mostly just used to educate people about the Pilgrims’ journey to America. Just like at Plimoth Plantation there are costumed role-players on board telling all sorts of stories and answering all sorts of questions. Seeing the way the crew and passengers slept and ate was more than a little remarkable. To think of 120+ people shoved into that tiny a space for two months was a little overwhelming, but those original Americans were under no illusions that the trip would be an easy one. It was a heck of a lot easier for Amy and me; we just walked up a ramp, looked around for about a half hour, then walked down a different ramp. Our journey to America was a can of corn compared to what the Pilgrims must’ve gone through, but that’s the advantage of being born in the 1980s, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 7

Harvard University – When I was applying for colleges at the ripe age of seventeen my father made it very clear to me that I should send out my information to whatever school I wanted, even if I didn’t think there was a chance I’d get accepted. He told me the story of when he was coming out of high school he only applied to the University of Illinois (where he eventually went) because he knew that was what his family could afford. His dream was to attend Harvard, but it would’ve been too expensive for my grandmother and grandfather. So he just didn’t out the application, even though he was a bright kid and would’ve liked to know if he could’ve made it in. Whether or not he actually went wasn’t the point—he wanted to know if he was good enough to attend Harvard University.

Even though I never really had much desire to go there myself, the place has always held some sort of mystique for me knowing how closely intertwined Harvard was with my father’s educational dreams as a young man. It’s iconic American college and we’d probably have no reason to ever go there again, so we went, just to take a little snoop around.

My good childhood friend and distant cousin David just wrapped up a three-year stint at the law school there, so Amy and I met up with him to get the five-cent tour. Harvard University, established in 1636, is the oldest school and the oldest corporation in America, and Harvard Yard is probably the most famous quad in the country. It’s where smart people go to college, and if you knew my buddy David he’d serve as living proof of that. The following list of people all went to Harvard. It’s crazy looking at all these names in one place. You ready? Here it is:

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Rutherford Hayes, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, George W. Bush (Lord knows how the hell that one happened), Al Gore, Barack Obama, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Helen Keller, William Rehnquist, Janet Reno, Ralph Nader, Al Franken, Adlai Stevenson, Bill Gates, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William S. Burroughs, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Michael Crichton, Robert Frost, William Randolph Hearst, Bill O’Reilly, Buckminster Fuller, Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, Conan O’Brien, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Portman, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Mira Sorvino, Tommy Lee Jones, Jonathon Taylor Thomas, Darren Aronofsky, Tom Morello, W.E.B. Du Bois, and, of course, The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Seventy-five Nobel Prize winners are associated with the university, and in the last 35 years, 19 Nobel Prize winners and 15 Pulitzer Prize winners have served on the faculty. The standards here are pretty high.

Comparing this to my own college, Illinois Wesleyan, is futile, no matter how excellent we are academically. We boast 7-time NBA All-Star Jack Sikma (hell of a guy, by the way), Oscar nominated actor Richard Jenkins (also a hell of a guy), and Andy Dick (who I’ve never had the displeasure of meeting, thankfully). No other school in America is going to come close to Harvard’s list of attendees. It’s just gonna happen.

Our tour of the campus included a breeze by the library, which is the largest private library in the world and the fifth largest collection of books in the world, as well as David’s law building, the famous John Harvard statue, and plenty of other buildings on campus as well.

We took a picture with the John Harvard statue, which is allegedly one of the most photographed statues in the country. It’s called the statue of three lies because the statue is not actually John Harvard (the sculptor used a student model), Harvard is not the founder of the university (he left several books and a hefty inheritance to the school years after it had already been established, so they changed the name then to honor him), and it was founded in 1636, not 1638 as the statue proclaims.

Just off campus is a little park called Cambridge Common, and it’s here that George Washington first took control of his Continental Army, and across the street from there are some bronze horseshoe prints in the sidewalk meant to commemorate the route of William Dawes, who like Paul Revere made a ride across the countryside to warn of the British coming to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock.

After walking around Harvard Square a little bit, buying t-shirts at the Coop, and getting a delicious red velvet cupcake at Sweet, a little bakery we’d heard a lot about, it was pretty much time to call it a day. There was baseball to watch later that evening, and we had to get a little bit rest and nourishment before the Fenway experience.

Fenway Park – Many baseball purists claim that some of the more modern ballparks are bastardizations of what a baseball experience should be. Having now been to the two oldest ballparks in American, Fenway and Wrigley, I can fully understand why some people prefer an old building for a baseball experience, even if modern-day stadiums have more comfortable seats, better food, and more navigable concourses. It all depends what you want out a ball game.

One thing is for sure, though—you can’t see your first game at Fenway without being at least a little wowed by it. Built in 1912 it’s the oldest professional baseball park still in use, and once you get inside you can see the charming presence of old age in the green rafters, the wooden grandstand seats, the dungeon-like underground concessions area, and the absence of a state-of-the-art souvenir shop. Walking into the building reminded me a lot of going to Cubs and White Sox games as a kid at Wrigley and Comiskey, and that was the part I really, really liked. It’s the kind of place where you almost have to buy a bag of peanuts en route to your seat (unless, of course, your wife is allergic to peanuts, in which case you skip that part).

Probably the most recognizable part of Fenway is the Green Monster, a 37-foot wall in left field meant to compensate for the short distance to that side of the field. Back when Manny Ramirez was playing for the Red Sox during the World Series years of 2004 and 2007, the Monster relayed a ton of doubles as it blocked line-drive homers from sailing out. Rising above that huge wall is the famous Citgo sign, which shines in all its neon glory above the park as soon as night falls.

The game itself was kind of blah since the Kansas City Royals ended up whooping up on the Sox, but for what it was worth we both really enjoyed the experience. For the better part of a couple innings I moved up to an empty seat a couple rows back from the field to shoot some pictures, and I got into a great conversation with a couple of locals. The Boston accent you hear so much about—with the r’s dropped off the ends of words—is legit. By the time I headed back to my actual seat I felt pretty confident that I could’ve passed as a Bostonian if I wanted. My White Sox hat probably would’ve given me away, though. One thing I’ve learned in visiting other teams’ ball parks is that it’s hard to stay interested the whole time, so we left in the 7th inning and took the subway back to our hotel. It was an excellent experience marking my 10th professional ballpark. I have now officially been to one-third of the baseball stadiums in Major League Baseball. I’m glad I didn’t have to save Fenway for last.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 6

Day 3:

Salem Witch Trials Monument & The Burying Point – Salem, Massachusetts is only about a thirty-minute drive north of Boston, so Amy and I made arrangements to spend some time out there to engrain ourselves in the local witch fare. Today, Salem has become something of a haven for Wiccans, but our interest in visiting was, like everything else on our trip, purely historical.

The American religious landscape in 1692 was extremely Puritan, meaning most people were very strict when it came to the Bible. Salem was no exception, and beyond their stringent adherence to the Bible’s bylines, they also believed in predestination—the idea that God has one’s entire life all planned out and everything happens for a very specific reason. If someone were to find buried treasure in their backyard, it was because God felt the need to reward them. If someone’s child got very sick and died, it was God’s punishment for some wrong that person had committed. No matter what happened in a person’s life, it was all for a reason.

A combination of these things, added to the boredom of Salem’s young girls and some complicated political dishevelment, led to some men and women being accused of witchcraft in Salem and the surrounding areas in 1692. The girls doing the accusing would fake seizures in court and point fingers at their “tormentors.” Eventually these girls’ parents would use the whole ordeal as an excuse to accuse people they didn’t like of witchcraft, and from there the whole thing dominoed completely out of control. By the time it was all said and done, twenty completely innocent people had been executed as witches.

Our first stop in Salem was the memorial constructed for those twenty men and women that had been wrongly killed. None of these people are actually buried there, but the names run around the little stone garden to remember the people that died. Anybody who had to read “The Crucible” in high school will recognize names like John Proctor, Sarah Good, Giles Corey, and Rebecca Nurse. Many of the others I hadn’t heard of previously, but it was cool to be there after having taught the book to my students.

The trials came to an abrupt close when the wife of a higher-up in the province was accused. Knowing it was all ridiculous, this man called an end to the trials and released the 100+ people who were being detained at the time as potential witches. The girls weren’t punished, nor was anyone else, because to admit the whole thing was a sham was to admit that their religion was a sham, and nothing was more important to early Americans than religion.

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Something was accomplished in the wake of all this, however. Because of these trials, spectral evidence (having to do with spirits and ghosts and all that) was outlawed in future hearings. No longer could someone say, “I’m being possessed by spirits unleashed onto me by so-and-so” and have that count as credible evidence towards convicting someone. It’s just a shame that 20 people had to die for so obvious a conclusion.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is right next to the city’s oldest cemetery, where Colonel John Hathorne, the head judge from the trials, is buried. Also interred there is Richard More, one of the original Pilgrims that came over on the Mayflower. So many of the stones in this small graveyard are dated in the 1600s, which, like the other cemeteries we’d already visited on this trip, didn’t fail to impress us. The oldest I think I’ve ever seen here in Illinois was 18-hundred-something-or-other. We’ve got a lot of great history in this state what with Abraham Lincoln and Chicago and all that, but sometimes it just can’t hold a candle to the East Coast, where almost everything is older than the dirt it stands on.

Witch Dungeon Museum – Salem is, in a lot of ways, just a giant tourist trap trying to capitalize on its fascinating history by appealing to those in search of anything tied to the witch trials. As a result there are quite a few different attractions in town with the words “Salem,” “Witch,” and “Museum” tied into their storefronts in some order or another. Most of these are some combination of wax sculptures and educational videos, and few, if any, of them have much by way of original artifacts from that era.

As tourists, however, Amy and I wanted to visit at least one of these kitschy little traps and so we chose the Witch Dungeon for the primary reason that they do an award-winning reenactment of Ann Putnam’s trial. You have a seat in a giant auditorium, watch the fifteen minute show, then get a brief tour of “The Dungeon.”

Amy and I must have looked like campers because we ended up on the front stoop of this place about five minutes before it actually opened. We were the only ones in attendance for the first show, and we sort of got the impression that the actresses weren’t accustomed to starting right at 10:00. My guess is that most tourists didn’t wander in until the 10:30 or 11:00 show. We literally saw one actress walk in after us in street clothes, then show up on stage in full 1692 regalia about 120 seconds later to play her part in the performance.

In all honesty, it was pretty good. All three actresses were more than solid, and considering it was just Amy and I in this huge auditorium they put on the show as if they were doing a Broadway opener or something. Plenty of bang for our buck in that regard, but it was the dungeon that we found to be particularly fetching.

Just like today, when someone was accused of a crime back in the seventeenth century, they’d be arrested and put into holding until a trial could be arranged. The jail in which these people were held was like a dank, moldy basement meant to accommodate no more than fifty people, but by the end of the trials up twice that many were living in that one room. There were no restrooms here, obviously, so people used the bathroom right where they were, and after a hard rain the entire room could flood up their knees. Such conditions were horrible, made all the worse considering those jailed there were actually innocent.

The cell in the basement of the Witch Dungeon Museum is not the original, but was built to the exact specifications of the original, which was discovered in the mid-1900s during preparation for a new building site. There was no real historical society back then so the dungeon was torn down completely, though a few relics were salvaged, including an original beam which was on display in the room we currently were viewing.

In terms of what was available to us there to get a sense of Salem’s history, this was very easily the best option. The Salem Witch Museum, a beautiful old converted church a short walk away, would have been our next stop were we not being asked to pay $8 a piece to watch a half-hour video on the history of trials. This place looked so cool from the outside and ended up being ever-so-lame that we ended up heading back for Boston around lunchtime. It’s a fun place to spend the morning for anyone looking to try a day away from the city, but to spend more than a few hours there would’ve been overkill. Very cool experience, but just a little too far removed from history to be as meaningful as some of the other things we’d seen thus far, and would see in the days to come.