American History 101.3

Part 3 of “My Life with Eighth Graders.” To read parts 1-2.5, Click HERE.

Although I’ve been in the Washington D.C. area often, and have read Dumas Malone’s work on Thomas Jefferson (well, not all six volumes), the closest I ever came to experiencing Monticello was holding a nickel. I’m not sure what the students in the group thought about the place, but I was excited to finally get there. And the buildings and grounds didn’t disappoint.

Since photographs are not allowed in the interior of Jefferson’s architectural testing ground, we more than made up for it outside, and took the first of seemingly thousands of group shots on the rear grounds (calling it the “lawn behind Jefferson’s house” doesn’t do either of them justice).

The Group at Monticello

All the way from Southern California to Northern Virginia

I quickly learned that as a chaperone on this trip, one of my primary responsibilities was to keep my charges from touching the interior walls of historical buildings. It wasn’t a problem at Jamestown, since nothing there was “original,” but the issue began to gain steam at Colonial Williamsburg. By Monticello, it was a stated primary concern of the docents. Figuring that it would be better for our students to be corrected by a familiar adult than by a badge-wearing historical official, I stepped boldly into the breach.

As a former teenage slouch-meister, I was not without empathy. After all, they were somewhat sleep-deprived. But instead of being able to completely focus on the many titles in Jefferson’s (recreated) library or learning the names of the bewigged men in the formal portraits hanging on his walls, I spent most of my indoor time whispering “pssst” to the more indolent students while making “get away from the plaster” motions with my hands.

Emily and Me at Monticello

Emily and Me under a cloudless sky at Monticello Photo Central

My favorite design detail inside Monticello was Jefferson’s bed. Because of the way it was situated within a wall, he could roll out of one side into a sitting room, or out the other into his office. I’d love to have a commute like that. My favorite part of the grounds was the view down the ridge to the University of Virginia, the founding of which was the pride of Jefferson’s later years.

Following our visit to Monticello, it was down the hill to lunch at Michie Tavern, a roadhouse which itself dates to 1784. I applaud any eating establishment which does not shudder at the sight of 74 ravenous youths getting off a tour bus. And, for students from the OC who are more apt to recognize black-eyed peas on their iPods than on their plates, they put away a passel of poultry and pork. I’m just glad I didn’t have to keep their greasy fingers off of anything historical.

Following the meal, it was off to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for Air and Space (Part of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museums, and located near Dulles airport). For someone who grew up during the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo days of the space race (and who used to be on the mailing list of the NASA Lawrence Livermore Labs as a pre-teen), it was a special treat. An entire wing of the center was dedicated to manned flight, from the earliest rockets through the space shuttles. The most fascinating thing in person? The size difference between the Freedom II Mercury capsule and the Space Shuttle Enterprise (both below).

The Freedom 7

The Freedom 7 II (not to be confused with the Mercury capsule which Allan Shepard rode to fame)

The Enterprise

The Space Shuttle Enterprise (not to be confused with ANY Mercury spacecraft)

But despite being the space-kid that I am, the craft which made the biggest impact on me in person was the Enola Gay. Seeing it there was particularly poignant because I’d recently read an excerpt from a memoir by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. — who led the bomber’s crew on August 6, 1945 — describing the mission destined to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific.

I didn’t take a photo…just stood in respectful silence. Even my daughter, who is somewhat of a WWII historian, was impressed. After a couple of minutes, we ambled off quietly together.

Next: Monuments and Memorials. Lots of ’em. Several days worth, in fact.

For Part 4, Click HERE

craig hodgkins

~ by Craig Hodgkins on October 28, 2007.

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