Finding America in the unlikeliest places

First, we would turn the old '38 Chevy off Route 301 onto Georgetown Road, and then a short while later turn left onto an obscure country road and continue on until that road led to a private lane.

Farther down that lane, deep in the forest, was Dad's childhood home. It's where he first discovered the world around him, where he first discovered America. In fact, his family tree went back to the birth of this nation and the country's early struggles and achievements.

My Grandma Whipple was born during the Civil War. Her great-grandmother was born in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson won his first bid for the presidency. Dad was a native of Studly in Hanover County, Patrick Henry's birthplace. And although many of my Whipple ancestors were illiterate and didn't leave a paper trail of family history, the family's collective memory was rife with anecdotal history.

Dad grew up close to Cold Harbor, a site famous for having been a Civil War battlefield. Grandma Whipple's bedroom contained a dark, heavy oak armoire that contained bullet holes. Family stories said the bullet holes were remnants from the Battle of Cold Harbor.

For the most part, I didn't hear a lot of history discussed during visits to Dad's childhood home. His home was a 12-acre haven, a retreat from the outside world. It was an insular place where freedom and patriotism were celebrated by hearty individuals in partial isolation.

America, to these rugged country folk, was a refuge from the hubbub of towns and cities. Dad's old "home place" -- we used to visit there on long weekends -- was a foreign land to me. It had a well instead of a kitchen faucet, an outhouse instead of a proper bathroom.

As I grew into adolescence and adulthood, I chose to eschew such a rudimentary lifestyle. Even my own fairly modern suburban home could not hold me in its grip. I yearned for the bright lights and the big city.

I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968. Wow! What a shock. The capital city of the United States, the center of government, but in many ways far removed from all of my previous ideas on what makes America. So far away from my visions of Valley Forge and Bunker Hill, D.C. was a throbbing city of marble columns and statues, of silent stone monuments and, by contrast, roaring traffic and Metro passenger cars whining below the streets. The thundering jets taking off from National Airport.

The center of America, but what a different America than I had ever known before.

Surely I should be ashamed to admit this, but I never once took a tour of the houses of Congress. Never once set foot in the White House, although I had passed these edifices countless times during my 12 years there. In so many ways, I was simply too close to the forest to see the trees. And I was not alone.

Hundreds of thousands of poor souls were too busy with our pursuits of going to work to earn a living. Many evenings we spent our time whiling away the hours at neighborhood bars, trying to relieve the stresses of the workaday world.

Our local TV news was a national network news; our local celebrities were international figures. Perhaps I had my senses dulled by the presence of too much fame and notoriety.

On my first Sunday morning in town, as I strolled around Thomas Circle, I had a fairly close encounter with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson exiting church services. Another day, I watched Jimmy Carter leave the Washington Hilton after some event. As for me, I was on my way to the Town House grocery store to pick up a can of tuna for supper. (It was the very same hotel entrance where Ronald Reagan was shot only a few years later.) In August 1974, while watching the evening news on my little black and white TV, I watched Richard Nixon climb the steps to the helicopter, turn and wave goodbye to onlookers and the presidency. He left a disgraced and a fallen man.

OK, so important and memorable events whirled around me in that vortex called the beltway, but at the time they were events that numbed my senses rather than elucidated my understanding. Perhaps Washington, D.C., was too much for me to fully process.

Strangely enough, those halls of government did not inspire me. The daily workings of politics and government were more disheartening than inspiring. What a strange yet familiar ring that statement has even today, especially today, perhaps.

Not that all of my stay in Washington was an unpatriotic wasteland. There were special moments. My friend Laura once lived in a high rise in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just across the boundary from D.C. On one Independence Day, she invited me along with a few others to join her on the roof of the building for a poolside party where we could socialize a bit over drinks and hors d'oeuvres and, after sunset, watch the fireworks display over the distant Washington Mall. From the rooftop we could enjoy a great and expansive view of the holiday light show.The only problem -- the main problem -- the weather didn't cooperate. It was a cool, rainy day, no good for a rooftop party and certainly not good for fireworks. They were postponed until the next day.

On the next evening the conditions were better, but not much. It wasn't rainy, but the high temperature was only in the 50s. I went downtown and viewed the fireworks with the crowd on Constitution Avenue. I wore a jacket, and still I shivered. It's the coldest Independence Day I can remember.

That occasion also brought back memories of myself as a toddler, when Dad, in his '38 Chevy, drove our family over to Old Point Comfort to watch the fireworks at Fort Monroe. Dad held me up on his shoulders so I could see above the crowd. He offered me a ringside seat as it were, so I could have a clear view. And, oh, what a view!

The Army band struck up the tune "God Bless America." God bless America, indeed!

Whipple, a Williamsburg writer, has published several books and countless essays.

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