A TRIP NORTH

archivesOutpours of raw emotions during the last few months have fueled Covid related fears. The tragic loss of life at the hands of a policeman has challenged the underpinnings of who we are as a people. Sense of due process is nowhere to be found and it seems each of us are pitted against each other based on opinions, that in good times, would remain properly confidential.

Marrying later in life, my wife Christina and myself have devoted ourselves to each other, along with trying to be the best aunt and uncle we believe possible. We also decided early that much of our free time would be spent in our yard and on travels abroad. It has been a great experience and we have loved every minute of our adventures. However, as with others who travel, our “experiences” remain locked within our minds and out of sight as bits of info on the phone or camera card. It is sad and very seldom that we have the chance to share the dirty little details of where we’ve been.

In hopes of dampening the unhealthy stew of reality presently in place, I plan to keep one eye on world events while aiming my heart to better days. I hope you enjoy as my memories are put into word.  If not for you, then at least I’ll have a place to go when retrieval from the eventual failing of memory prevents me from remembering. No rush!

Travels do not happen without planning.  Along with planning come hitches. As my childhood scoutmaster Steve Dubay once said many years ago, the most perfect scouting outings will not be what you will remember most. Instead, you will reflect fondly on the freezing cold, the blistered foot, and knowing you survived the seeming unsurmountable challenges. For me, no better wisdom has ever been spoken. But that really is not true either as when asked what he wanted most in life, my father’s answer was simply “kind words and cool water.” Nothing else matters.  I hear you dad and am reminded once more what that really means.

I will not base the upcoming posts chronologically or in any other order. They will be randomly presented thoughts beginning with a domestic trip made in 2001. This initial post will be followed with tales from excursions mostly to Europe.  My wife and I have witnessed many things in our few years of travel. Two times we saw the sun fall, a policeman silenced a knife wielding terrorist, and watching from the gate window, we saw our plane leave without us. We survived an attempted robbery, sunburn, and numerous mishaps on the motorways.  We could have traveled in the security of a hired tour guide, though I am thankful we did it our way.

_____________________________________

As assistant director of the Crafts Center at North Carolina State University, my responsibility back then was over the maintenance of many things mechanical, along with the supervisory role over the best equipped student owned woodshop in the nation. At that time, I would rather be carving a piece of wood than having a fine dinner. I did not even own a pet as my world back then was greedily driven by the need to create.

It was also a time following the passing of my father. It was a time when a newfound interest in family history threatened to upend my love of wood.  It was actually ten o’clock at night and having finished teaching a Wednesday evening introductory woodworking class, I swept up the shop, turned in my class folder, and waved bye to the student attendant as I headed out on my adventure.  Having recently learned of Benjamin Thomas, my earliest known paternal ancestor, my old red truck was packed with blanket and pillow in tow as I headed north to Washington DC.  My goal?  …to learn from what I could find at National Archives. Without any real planning, my interests were primarily centered around Revolutionary War records and War of 1812 bounties. If time allowed, I hoped to swing up to Philadelphia in search of records for a John Love, who once lived there. He may or may not have been related to my mom’s side of the family.

Clicking along I-95 through the dismal darkness of southern Virginia, my mind drifted off to my only other trip to DC …which was made with my family in the mid 1960’s. Surely less than 6 years old, back then I found no interest in the long wait to see a tiny flame they called eternal. Dad, bless his heart, was never good in heavy traffic.  I remember going back and forth, rounding the round-a-bouts and crossing the Potomac river numerous times until we could figure out where we were heading. I also remember seeing the statue of Iwo Jima numerous times though I do not think we ever found the entrance and a place nearby to park. I loved the Washington Monument if only I would have been tall enough to see out of the windows.  And Jefferson and Abe Lincoln were awesome.  Did you know the names of many states are named on a five-dollar bill?  Mostly about DC, I remember the zoo and dad getting too close to the tiger’s cage and of how far a cat of that size can pee. But of it all, my little mind made note of the enormity, especially the impressive granite monuments which were everywhere.

All but falling asleep at the wheel, it was late night and I remember the Pentagon appearing out of the darkness as I approached DC. After being lost for quite a time, I remember passing Lafayette Park to the right with St. John’s Episcopal coming into view on the left. My tired eyes could not grasp what they beheld as the church porch was covered with temporary tents made of cardboard and other rubbish. The nearly 100 people encamped alerted me to an element that my considerations had overlooked. It was sad and a memory I will never forget.

Driving a bit further and winding my way through several blocks of governmental plaza, I came upon Pennsylvania Avenue and knew from the hardcopy map that archives was nearby. At that time, being after three o’clock am, my eyes hurt really badly from sawdust and a lack of sleep. I was absolutely worn out.  Needing sleep, the tree lined curb along Pennsylvania Avenue was the perfect place to get some sleep …so I thought.

No more than thirty minutes into stretching out on the bench seat with pillow, someone knocked at the glass sidelights startling me into a painful existence somewhere less than being fully awake. It was the homeless people. That is all I could think, and then I was fully awake …and scarred. Easing back into driving position and cranking up the trunk, I continued down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capital building.  It was at that point that I glanced at the gas gage which was near empty.  Wow, there I was in the land of monuments and no gas in sight.

I turned onto a road and remembered what I had once been told.   “If lost, continue in one direction till you come to a landmark.”  For me, the landmark I sought was a gas pump and I knew driving around the capital would be fruitless. After a few miles all I saw was the gateway over Chinatown as the glaring lights of police cars passed in the distance. In a few more miles I came upon a sketchy all-night gas station. Attempting to pump the gas myself, a person possibly homeless entered my world. He took the pump handle from me and smiled as he began pumping the gas.  I gave the poor fellow a bit of money and we both went on our way.

Realizing I could not simply park and camp on the corner, I decided to make the best of the situation. For the next hour I drove around all the sights in DC seeing the glow of each monument from afar. It is a scene like none other. Somewhat like the somber reverence of a moonlit graveyard, the shades of black were strong, demanding respect and attention. Ever since the experience I have always wondered about leading a field trip to some such field of stone as part of a study in photography. I surely do not have the talent to lead such an activity though would certainly pay to participate.

It was not long before sunrise and I knew I had to find my way back to archives. Regardless of who I met in the dark of night, I decided to pull over once again along Pennsylvania Avenue. Finding my way to sleep, I slept for just a bit before once again being awakened.  This time the source of agitation came from men hollering from the next block over.  I cranked up the old red truck once more and drove around the block to scope out the situation. The noise was from construction workers waiting for the underground parking garages to open for the upcoming day. I pulled behind them where I found peace and real sleep.

At that point, and out of nowhere, suddenly the noise was excruciating as the city had come alive. Cars zoomed by as people passed to my right and left. Quickly cranking up the truck I ducked into the garage where nature demanded of me another hour of sleep. I obliged. Upon reawakening about seven o’clock, I climbed out of the stale underground tomb. It was difficult to push myself in the hot morning air along the brightly lit sidewalks of summer.

I made my way around a building and through the columnade of the Navy Memorial before crossing the busy street to the front entrance of archives.  Better awake than me, the homeless were busily putting their cardboard homes back into hiding for another night.   There were also workers dragging out hoses to wash the sidewalks. The good town was alive and ready for the day.  Turning to visualize where I had been the night before, a smile came over my face realizing my fears had all been unfounded.  There before me was the tree lined curbs where I had spent the night in fear. Looking a little higher I realized I had chosen to camp out under the overhang of the J. Edger Hoover Building.  Really, were those homeless people who had awakened me upon my first arrival? G-men maybe? Hmmmmm …you can always tell the new kid on the block.

_________________________

National Archives is everything I thought it should be.  Upon entering the first order of business is the filling out of official paperwork authorizing the issuance of an identification card. Within the grand entryway, an ink pen adorned with cardstock resembling a feather quill was used to sign in. Access to microfilm rooms was by way of secure doorways like the ones you would expect on a battleship.

That morning I met with an archivist who scheduled retrieval of the original documents which I later viewed in a reading room while wearing cotton gloves. The day was splendid and as a side note, at one point I noticed people gathering at a window along one wall of the building.  Curious as to what was going on, I had to look. Appearing straight down from the window, a long transfer truck was stuck in the steep and narrow ramp leading to the basement loading bay.  I understand all the records for out-going president Bill Clinton were onboard the truck which was much bigger than those the building was originally designed. My mind was too tired at the time to comprehend the humor though I overheard all varieties of yuck-yuck as I got back on task.

Leaving the archives by four o’clock pm, I had no more than an hour before I really needed to head north. After grabbing a dog and some chips I made my way around to the back side of Archives where the Constitution was on display.  Crossing the street, I had about thirty minutes to tour the National Portrait Gallery. It was wonderful! Even if by way of quick glance, I had the chance to lay my eyes on America’s greatest treasures. This was also the place where once stood a hotel where William Thornton’s National Patent Office was housed. Thornton was interested in North Carolina’s gold and bought up nearly 50,000 acres to search for it in present day Stanly County. Leaving the Gallery, I grabbed a dog and chips before returning to my truck for the next leg of the trip to Philadelphia.

_____________________________________

Somewhere in Maryland, or possibly Pennsylvania, I pulled over at a truck stop to grab a bite and catch some zzzzz’s. Waking late in the night, a bird bath was in order before changing into a fresh set of clothes. Ahhh, much better! And back on the road, crossing the bridge into Philly, I made it to downtown in the wee hours of morning.  The ornate courthouse stood tall with the statue of William Penn powerfully lit against the ink blue sky. Luckily, I found a parking deck within two blocks of my destination. The prison styled barbed wire wrapping the deck alerted me that this place was not as civil as I would wish it to be. Crime must be a real issue in Philly.

City_hall_Philadelphia

courtesy of wikipedia 

As there was another hour or so remaining until sun-up, and really wanting to get a better look at the courthouse, I risked the opportunity to get out and explore the surrounding area. The sight was amazing though it was quite eerie walking through the dark passages running underneath the Courthouse.  Trusting the rising hair on the back of my neck, I made my way back to the safety of my truck for a quick nap.

The rising sun was coordinated with steady stream of business folk walking the city street, all heading towards the courthouse. I followed suit though stopped at a breakfast house where I had a good meal while watching the almost military-like maneuver passing by the window.

I eventually made it to the clerk of deeds office where the workers were just opening shop.  Asking about the location of deed indexes, my slow southern voice gave away the fact that I was not local.  And in return, their answers were quick and initially unhelpful until they realized I was on a mission and would not go away until satisfied.  Really, all I wanted were any deeds for John Love ca. 1850-1880 …easy peasy! That, and then estate records, marriages, and were there other things I could find. It never ends.

The man helping me told me I really needed to go to a records office at another location that was put in place for people like me to research.   He told me of the subway and of going across town to reach the facility. Clueless and never having ridden a subway, I asked about a taxi. The man was actually quite kind as nearing lunch time, he told me to give him thirty minutes and he’d ride out to the facility with me. It was a rough ride but glad I the public servant had been there for me.

I found a few deeds and records that will be used someday in a later post.  However, I did not find the smoking gun I had been looking for.  The day was long and it was nearing 4 pm when I decided on one last option.  While walking the area the night before, I had noticed a fine building with plaque reading “Historical Society of Pennsylvania.” Making my way back to the courthouse, I walked down to the building where upon entering I was told that only thirty minutes remained until closing.  I spit out the name John Love and begged if they had anything quickly accessible. The historian walked me to the card catalogue where we found the bible record for the man I sought.  It was not THE smoking gun I had been looking for though I did have the opportunity to hold a document that drove my hypothesis deeper. Often, we drive hundreds of miles only to realize that we have arrived at a place different than what we had envisioned. That, or we learn new information that sends us to a hundred miles in another direction. And, sometimes there is a dead end.

Returning to Raleigh, I slept for days.  My trip north will always remain with me. It was a great summer trip though my fond memories of those days were upstaged and robbed by the deeply sad events occurring a month later on September 11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s