My friends at Country Roads Magazine asked me to write about some of my favorite places discovered as we wander about. Here’s that story.
Last week I was asked for the first time to be a guest blogger, and tell the story of how, when you can only bring a handful of “things” along on your journey, you make that choice. A fun assignment. Here’s what I wrote.
Bear with me. I have two stories to tell that will intersect when I’m done.
Part 1: Today we visited Wheatland, President James Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some historians believe that Buchanan was our first gay president.
There was no mention of that speculation on our home tour but a piece by Katherine Cooney for Time, explores that possibility in detail.
Buchanan was the only president who never married. For many years he shared a home with William Rufus King, an Alabama senator. Their relationship was reportedly so close that Andrew Jackson referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”. When King moved to Paris to become the American ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote of his profound loneliness.
Part 2: Wheatland was about a half hour drive from our current RV Park in Hershey. Two and a half hours in the other direction, remembrance ceremonies are being held today at the Flight 93 National Memorial. Passengers aboard that flight are believed to have stormed the cockpit when they learned of the other 9/11 attacks, bringing the plane down in a Pennsylvania field, instead of the hijackers’ intended target—the U.S. Capitol.
One of those thought to have fought back against the terrorists was Mark Bingham. Bingham was gay. I feel compelled to point this out, because today contemporary equivalents of “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy” are still with us: “Pansy,” “light in the loafers,” and much worse.
Mark Bingham was a hero—not a pansy.
For several weeks this fall The Fabulous Fifth Wheel was parked in a cliffside RV park overlooking the Pacific ocean, just outside San Francisco. And despite having visited the city at least a dozen times before, it wasn’t until this trip that I ticked the last of the iconic San Francisco experiences off my bucket list: Alcatraz.
I’m glad I waited. Because, as it turned out, my long delayed visit coincided with the current exhibit of site-specific works by the Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. Titled @Large, the works explore to stories of those incarcerated in one form or another for their beliefs.
The National Park Service is one of the sponsors of the exhibit. I can only imagine there was hand wringing in park management meetings when, as one section of Legos was pieced to together by volunteers following Weiwei’s blueprint, the image of Edward Snowden appeared.
Freedom Fighter? Traitor? Can he be both? In any event, his story and those of the 175 others with pixilated portraits here are particularly thought provoking in this setting.
Elsewhere on the island, in one of the cellblocks, there’s a sound installation. Words and music from incarcerated activists fill each cell from hidden speakers. Including the music of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. And for the first time I read a translation of the song that got them sent to prison after it was performed in a cathedral in Moscow to protest the Orthodox church’s support of Putin.
“Virgin Mother of God, put Putin away
Put Putin away, put Putin away!
Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains.”
The exhibit is up through April of 2015. See it if you can.
“Want to walk the dogs with us?” Meredith asked.
We spent Thanksgiving with my daughter in Washington, D.C. She recently bought a house there in a neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Not far from her place is the Congressional Cemetery, where I was a bit surprised to learn, she walks her dog.
An interesting story that. Founded in 1807 the land for this, our first national cemetery, was a part of L’Enfant’s original plans for the city of Washington. Until the mid 1830s practically every congressman who died in Washington was buried there.
But over the years the cemetery went out of favor as a burial site, was almost forgotten, and fell into neglect. By 1997, the Congressional Cemetery had the dubious distinction of being added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic sites.
Flash forward a few more years, and a group of neighbors nearby were having trouble finding a good spot to walk their dogs. The solution would turn out to be a nonprofit organization that now takes excellent care of the cemetery, and allows dog owners to responsibly walk their dogs (under the watchful eye of a docent on duty) in exchange for funding its care.
Meredith and her boyfriend Damon were anxious to take us there. So with the dogs leading the way, we set out.
It’s a beautiful place. And indeed there are well-known members of congress buried there, including TIp O’Neill, and one with a more checkered legacy, Elbridge Gerry. He’s the politician for whom the political tactic we see all too often employed these days—gerrymandering—was named.
But the real reason Meredith and Damon were so anxious for us to visit it turns out was just a bit further down that same row of graves, on a corner.
There was the tombstone marking the final resting spot of Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich. Winner of a purple heart and bronze star, Matlovich was the first to publicly fight back when he was discharged from the military after he confided to his commanding officer that he was gay.
Nearby the marker for another grave reads
Warren O’Reilly Ph.D: “During my eventful lifetime the only honest and truthful ending of the Pledge of Allegiance was “…with Liberty and Justice for SOME.”
Elsewhere on the corner the inscription on William Boyce Mueller’s stone reads, “Founder—Forgotten Scouts. Beloved son of Virginia Boyce Lind and grandson of William Dixon Boyce. Founder—Boy Scouts of America.”
It seems that Matlovich’s decision to be buried here convinced many other gay veterans to do the same. There are plans to build a memorial to those here—and all the thousands of others who, since the founding of our country, have served in silence.
But no more.
Thanks Mere and Damon.
We’ve reached the point in our wanderings where things we learn at one stop in our journey have begun to intersect with things we learn at another. Case in point, last year when we visited Valley Forge, we learned that the man recruited by George Washington to train the American revolutionary army, and whose training is widely credited with turning around the course of the war, was most probably gay. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben is reported to have arrived in Valley Forge accompanied by his greyhound (which went with him everywhere) and an attractive young male “aide” after leaving Prussia under the cloud of charges that he’d engaged in “improper relationships.”
I loved this bit about him from Wikipedia:
“As he could not speak or write English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in French, the military language of Europe at the time. His secretary, Duponceau, then translated the drills from French into English. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. The Baron’s willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers. He occasionally recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English.”
We were riding the cog trail up the mountain in Seefeld, Austria, where the Olympics were once held, with another member of our tour group whom we’d just met—a slight man wearing lavendar-tinted glasses. When we mentioned that we’d lived in New Orleans for many years he perked up, and replied that he’d just been to Southern Decadence.
“But I brought all the wrong outfits,” he confided to us. “I brought all my twinky outfits and I should have brought more bearish stuff.”
As always happens in the first conversation we have with a new acquaintance, a set of filters and presumptions begin to fall in place. The conversation turned to travel.
“My little electric heater from the dollar store and I have been all over the world,” he noted. “I get chilly easily.”
Presumptions begin to firm up.
I asked what his favorite places have been during his travels.
“The border of Burma and Thailand,” was his instant reply. “I hiked for eight days there and barely saw another human being. Later I found out there were rebel clashes along the border.”
Shortly thereafter our travel mate continued on up into the mountains where he hiked for several hours from one peak to the next. We enjoyed the view and a latte seated comfortably under an umbrella at the mid-mountain restaurant.
I’m so grateful every time I have an experience like this. Each is a reminder that although making a certain number of presumptions is necessary to carry on in life, they should always be questioned.
I asked my friend and former boss, Country Roads Magazine publisher James Fox-Smith, for a bit of help making a whacky idea for The Fabulous Fifth Wheel come true. His valiant efforts on our behalf seem to have raised an eyebrow or two. http://www.countryroadsmag.com/featured/blogs/editorial-reflections/kudzu-appreciation-society
I’ve never considered myself a beach person. Lying on hot sand, no matter how crystalline white it may be, acquiring the golden glow of future melanoma, hasn’t been appealing since high school. (I still recall the summer in high school when I was briefly unemployed and acquired an actual tan. That was also the year I put “Summer Blond” in my hair to lighten it. And it began falling out. Quite coincidentally I’m sure.)
But now I’ve fallen in love with Cannon Beach on Oregon’s pacific shore. Hard packed sand you can walk for miles in search of starfish. The sand is brown, not the brilliant white we know from the Florida panhandle, but has a surprising range of nuanced color as it interacts with the sun and the sea.
Huge rocks shrouded in mist. Cliff top views. Surfers. Children. Dogs.
Something to awaken every sense.
But the pictures tell the story better than I can.
So a couple of big ole gay guys decide that they’ll go on vacation to a country that’s 95% muslim. Sounds fun eh?
Turkey was so much more than fun.
It was thought-provoking, awe-inducing and mouth-watering. It was exotic, quirky, and sometimes warmly familiar. It was history-laden, futuristic, and filled with reminders to live fully in the present moment.
It is a place that many more able writers than I haven’t begun to do justice. I won’t try. Instead I’ll fall back on the “a picture tells a thousand words” adage to condense at least a fragment of this adventure into a blog-sized tale.
In the next post—Turkish Delights beyond Istanbul.
Just down the road from our current campground is the tiny Iowa farm town of Oxford—population 821. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid growing up nearby and we’d come to the rodeo held outside town every year.
With one exception— a few years ago a new restaurant popped up in one of the pretty historic brick buildings along the couple of streets that comprise downtown. A restaurant run by a couple flooded out of New Orleans by Katrina.
And so last night we had a big family gathering at Augusta, ten of us in all, gathered around mismatched tables with pretty table clothes, surrounded by walls covered in a mixture of New Orleans mementos and the work of local artists. I had shrimp and a grit cake on the side as good as any I’ve ever had in New Orleans. Rosemary may not be one of the “holy trinity” of Creole spices, but after these shrimp I’m convinced a “holy quad” is in order. Great gumbo too, and red beans that also departed a bit from the way they’re traditionally spiced, but nonetheless delicious.
In a bit of cross-cultural irony, displayed on the wall was a newspaper article reporting that Augusta’s “tenderloin,” as the iconic Midwestern fried pork sandwich is known, had been voted the best in Iowa by the pork producer’s association.