- March 16th, 2010
When I was a small boy my family took roadtrips. These were our family vacations and I loved each and every one of them, though some few do stand out in my recollection more than others. One of those I recall with the greatest joy was summer trip to Virginia. Now before I begin let me say that summer along the James River is, at times less a vacation than it is an exercise in mans ability to produce sweat. I say this to remind everyone of how difficult life must have been for those earnest settlers who crossed the vast ocean to make new homes in this unknown and frightening wilderness. And a wilderness it was. It is easy to forget amongst the subdivisions, town homes, shopping malls and gas stations that once upon a time this whole area was a wilderness as dense as foreboding as anything to appear in a fairy tale. And while there no witches living in this forest the settlers no less saw a certain witchcraft among the native peoples, whom they found to be both fascinating and terrifying! The “Indians” danced naked around bon fires, painted their faces with bear grease and the dye from berries, created masks to hide their true selves behind mythical images. They were a pagan ideal which these Christian newcomers could never quite understand so they labeled them as best they could. That story would eventually lead to tragedy and though it is a story worth the telling it is not the story I have to tell today. My story, that is to say one of the stories that is about me, or by me, or from me, is about a little boy on a summer vacation with his family and that little boy, as you must have guessed by now was my own true self!
It was an especially hot summer and although I am myself a southern boy born and bred I never developed the reslianincy against hot, languid summers which had been the salvation of my hard working ancestors. It wasn’t that I was a soft boy, or frail. In fact in autumn climes, when the temperature drops and night falls a little early I come alive. My family always said I had New England Skin draped over Southern bones. I suppose they were right! I was also a hopeless book worm. Some people might use the term in a derogatory light but tome it was a badge of the greatest honor. Put a book in my hand and I could lose hours and days. And because I always had a book in hand I lost a lot of time. I know it passed because my hair grew longer and I eventually grew a beard and somewhere along the way I was married and am having a child. But where the time actually got off to is anybodies guess. I like to think that it is waiting for me at the end of the road and when I arrive it will wave and say Hiya, where have you been all this long while? This is one reason family road trips were always so enjoyable. I could sit back with my book and let the car take me to where it was I was going. Of course, it was my father who did the driving and so, after many years passed I discovered that for some reason his recollections of road trips were somewhat different from my own? I can’t account for the discrepancy. Perhaps dad should have been reading his own book!
Virginia is a curious place. Named after a virgin queen and begun along the banks of a river named after a tribal confederation. The settlers were fond of renaming things so the Powahtan River became the James River, but since both names relate to political dominance it might just as well have been called river of politics. I suppose James does fit on a map nicely anyway. The first city, America’s first city, if you could call a collection of hovels surrounded by a haphazard log wall a city was Jamestown. Today the city is an archeological site featuring holes and black lines in the dirt. For the convenience of tourists there is another Jamestown where people wear costumes and pretend they are living as settlers. Of course, they don’t smell bad and no one dies of scurvy or gets killed by a wild animal at this other Jamestown, but at least you can see more than holes and black lines in the dirt. We Americans have a fondness for recreating kinder and gentler versions of our history. It isn’t that we don’t love our history, we just don’t like to think we were making it while we smelled bad and had dirt on our noses.
These first settlers eventually found out that the spot they picked to build their city was, contrary to what they thought a rather dismal spot. The river grew stagnant for weeks at a time and mosquitoes swarmed like a biblical plague so they decided to expand. I imagine the conversation went something like this… “So you want to move? Of course! It’s miserable here.” And so they moved, spreading out like tributaries off a major river. For the most part they followed the rivers, building plantations that turned into small towns from time to time, and some of these grew into larger towns and some of them, white to the astonishment of the local Indians turned into bustling little cities. One of the first was called Middle Plantation founded by Dr. John Potts. He was a man who had the distinction of being a founder of one town and a decimator of the population another.
After the settlers at Jamestown decided their home was rather dismal they packed up and moved there, only they changed its name to Williamsburg. Like I said they loved to change names around and Burg sounded more cosmopolitan than Plantation. This became the new capitol of Virginia and one of the finest cities in all the new world. And by virtue of the Patriots Pass I, that is to say the me that was around when I was ten years old could enter this city stuck out of time. I felt like I was in an H.G. Wells story the modern adventurer going back in time. It was a good thing I, that is the me who was there then loved history because Williamsburg is like an adrenaline needle to the heart for a history buff.
It started like an amusement park, in the gift shop. It seems that not only do Americans like to pretended they made history without having dirt on their noses but that there was a gift shop nearby while history was being made. This particular gift shop sold pewter spoons and reproductions prints or Washington crossing the Delaware and tri corn hats for kids my size. Of course, I made my parents buy one for me. The gift shop was also the welcome center but I didn’t notice the welcome at the time. They also sold the Passes that would allow us to enter the gates and walk the venerable old streets. There was a certain colonial social structure to the passes the lower passes not allowing people to enter certain buildings while the highest pass, the Patriots Pass was all access. We might as well have been visiting dignitaries in shorts and flip flops. My first impression can’t be easily summed up in words. There was a magical quality to the place, it was oddly familiar. The cobblestone streets, the simple colonial buildings, the parade ground, the apothecary and the cobbler and the taverns all seemed to belong to some part of my life I had not noticed before, or that I had not acknowledged anyway. It took me a while to understand this sensation. It was somewhere between the hat blacksmith who was busy making nails and the parade grounds where soldiers in patriot blue were drilling awkwardly. It didn’t feel familiar, it was familiar. These were things I had read about in countless books. The time I had lost wasn’t waiting for me at the end of the line; somehow, someway it had found its ways to Williamsburg and mingled with the re-imagined history. The whole place, the streets, the sky, the trees and the buildings and people were all from the pages of a book, and I, being a reader recognized them! It was at that moment, as a ten year old little boy on a family vacation I discovered that history can write itself and the pages upon which the pen rolls is the very landscape beneath our feet. Shakespeare said the world is a stage, but he was wrong.
The world is a book and we, all of us are characters. And just as history writes itself on the landscape, it is up to each of us to write our stories. Will we be heroes or villains? The next time you consider doing something, anything stop for a moment and consider this… What will people think when they read the story of you, in the book written on the landscape of the world? Take a breath, exhale… And make your story memorable!