Reading World War II Weekend

Followers of this blog will know that both Mr Pict and I have a keen interest in history.  Mr Pict, however, is really into military history which is not really my bag unless it intersects with family history or social history.  My husband is very much an American Civil War nerd but his next favourite period of military history is the Second World War.  He was, therefore, really keen to go along to an event in Reading that focused on that particular conflict and, since I like to go on jaunts and have new experiences, I decided to accompany him and our youngest son.


It’s a massive event.  It takes place over a whole weekend, though we only went for a day, and covers a huge area.  We were absolutely staggered by the number of people who were in attendance.  There were umpteen parking lots to accommodate all of the visitors’ cars and multiple school buses taxiing people from those lots to the actual airfield that was hosting the event.  That place absorbed a heck of a lot of people without it ever feeling ridiculously crowded – though there were exceedingly long lines for portaloos – and I was impressed with how organised the staff were at keeping people flowing.


Given it was being accommodated at an airfield, the event was especially focused on the airshow element and there were vintage planes galore.  I know nothing about planes and even less than that about vintage planes but Mr Pict was excited.  We had a gander at a lot of planes that were being exhibited at ground level, watched a reenactment of a dog fight, and watched planes doing aerial stunts.  The highlight of my husband’s day was seeing a Mitsubishi Zero, which apparently was the fastest propellor plane (if I was paying attention to what I was told).









The other thing there were a lot of were reenactors.  For obvious reasons, the majority of people chose to depict American military personnel but there were also some Brits, a smattering of Poles, some Japanese pilots, a smattering of Russians, and a surprising number of Germans.  I observed that the latter had by far the most immaculate uniforms and best posture.  The reenactors were really into the details too and I enjoyed looking at all of the vignettes they had created in their camps and the still lifes of vintage objects they had curated.  I guess I like those little human details and the creativity because, goodness knows, the vehicles, weapons, and military paraphernalia don’t do it for me.










There was a fun Home Front section housed in one of the hangars.  Part had been turned into a movie theatre that was showing old newsreels and cartoons.  We didn’t catch any of those but we did sit in some shade to take in one of the radio show performances which happened to be a couple of singers.  There was also the recreation of a 1940s American sitting room, a group who were putting women’s hair up into “victory rolls”, and a candy store.  From the latter, we bought a fresh lemon that had a lemon candy straw poked into it.  It was deliciously refreshing.






We watched a reenactment of a skirmish between the Germans and the Allies in a French village.  I was amused by the incongruity of a bunch of blokes in German military uniforms standing around and chatting in front of a fleet of yellow school buses.  When they got going, however, the action was very well choreographed and the volume of the artillery noise was pretty arresting.  I could feel the vibrations in my sternum.  The smoke and noise and crowds was a bit too much sensory overload for our ten year old so we skedaddled from there to the flea market section where a bit of retail therapy (even in the form of “window shopping”) got him recalibrated.



We somehow managed to spend four hours there despite the fact we were getting toasted by the blazing sunshine and the fact that 2/3 of us were not that engrossed by the subject.  I thought the whole event was very polished and there was clearly a lot to do and engage with if World War II history is your thing so it was definitely worth doing.  It was an enjoyable day out and I was glad I tagged along.  I don’t have a need to repeat the experience but I can definitely envisage my husband making a return visit.


World War 2 at Graeme Park

This past weekend we visited a World War 2 history festival at Graeme Park.  The park is a historic site in Horsham, to the north of Philadelphia and, therefore, not too far from where we live.  It was the summer residence of Sir William Keith, an 18th Century Governor of Pennsylvania and Delaware.  While the mansion is still called Keith House, the park is named for the next generation of residents to live there.  Our visit, however, was not about the eighteenth century but was all about the Second World War.  We will have to return some other time to learn the history of the property and park.


Mr Pict and I are history fanatics and we, therefore, grab every opportunity we can to engage the children in history.  Military history is not especially my thing but I accept that most history events and festivals will be dominated by major conflicts from across the centuries.  Indeed, the Chalke Valley History Festival that we attended last year on our trip back to the UK was themed around different periods of military history with some social history tacked on for good measure.

First up was a small aeroplane, minus its tail and wings, that the kids were permitted to climb inside.  They enjoyed taking turns pretending to be pilots.  Then we arrived at some stalls where genuine artifacts and memorabilia were being sold alongside replicas and war themed toys.  The kids always enjoy things like flea markets, boot fairs, and jumble sails so they had a great time rooting around.  Mr Pict and I were amused to see that toys from our childhoods, such as little plastic soldier figures and Action Men (GI Joes in the US) were being sold as “vintage”.  My oldest son and I also had a wee tour of some military vehicles and classic cars from the 1940s.  He chose a cream Chrysler as his favourite whereas I liked a sapphire blue Lincoln best.




Then it was time to watch a reenactment of American infantry troops moving across a field towards SS and Wehrmacht troops who were occupying a farm house and adjacent land.  It was interesting to watch the maneuvres and the strategic use of the limited land forms but I think the kids would have engaged more had there been an MC commentating and explaining what was happening.  They did like all the gunfire and explosions, however, and liked trying to predict which soldiers were going to “die” next.


Next up was an Abbot and Costello tribute act.  I grew up watching Abbot and Costello movies so I introduced my boys to them a few years ago.  They love the movies that crossover with the Universal monsters.  The tribute duo were skilled impersonators and were great at the rat-a-tat-tat high speed repartee but, as you might expect, the jokes were a bit dated for the kids to always “get” the punch line.  They did enjoy the puns, however, and my oldest found an elaborate, extended pun about a baseball game amusing.


We then wandered around the encampment while the boys munched on pretzels (of course, because we cannot go on any outing without them consuming pretzels).  We saw reenacters depicting woodland defences and firing from foxholes, a few more military vehicles, and “soldiers” sitting outside their tents to eat their lunches.  We also did some dancing to Glen Miller music.







After all the formal activities, we let the boys spend some time climbing some large fallen trees.  They always love scrabbling around on trees and this one had some great long branches for them to balance on plus a little “cave” formed by its exposed root system.  We also found a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail.  I assume it was injured in some way as it did not fly off when we approached it and even allowed the kids to gently handle it.  We moved it to a more secluded spot so that it could hopefully recover and then fly off.  Then, on the walk back to the car, the kid and I encountered a few snakes.  Most slithered a speedy retreat but one large Eastern Gartersnake stayed on the spot which enabled us to get up close and study it.  It soon became apparent that it too had been injured, probably by a car, so I picked it up and moved it to a grassy spot, safely away from tires.  It thanked me with a farewell hiss.








Washington Crossing

This weekend we went to Washington Crossing, both a town in PA and a state park straddling both Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the banks of the Delaware River.  My 8 year old had to visit a local historic site in order to earn some sort of badge and the pack leader suggested Washington Crossing.  Every year, the folks of the area stage a reenactment of General George Washington’s Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River in 1776.  Happily they don’t just stage the reenactment on Christmas Day but also on an earlier weekend because we could not have sold a Christmas Day excursion to walk some men in fancy dress row some boats to the kids.  Want to know how stoked the boys were to be attending this event?  Yup.  Correct.  Not.  At.  All.

Honestly, it was a hard sell.  On a list of a hundred trips my kids might be enthused about, standing on the banks of a river watching some historic reenactors go to and fro does not feature.  Not remotely.  In fact, it might feature on a list of things my kids will rebel against.  Which was kind of apt given it was all about a revolution.  It was also hard for me to whip them up into some sort of interest because, quite frankly, the Revolutionary War doesn’t especially engage me either.  Finally I segued from playing Devil’s Advocate with my failing and flailing attempts at persuasion and just went with threats of dire punishment to get them into the car and get the trip underway.

Washington Crossing was absolutely thronging when we arrived.  Finding parking proved to be quite a challenge.  Clearly whole vast herds of other parents had no difficulty enthusing their children about the event.  The best views were to be had from a VIP area with a marquee and ticketed entrance.  There was no way I was going to hand over cash just to hear my kids whine and gripe so we found a spot further along the bank and settled in there.  And by “settled” I mean that Mr Pict and I had to stay on hyper alert as our children picked up large sticks with which to have lightsaber fights, jumped off rocks down to the shore, gave other people palpitations as they scuttered down steep slopes at high speed, hurtling towards the water, and tried to escape.  Oh what fun.



Finally it was time to watch the reenactment.  I then became utterly confused because the row boats pushed out from the Pennsylvania shoreline and crossed to New Jersey.  Somewhere in the dusty shelves of my memory, I thought that Washington had crossed the other way.  So, to be clear, I had dragged four unwilling and rebellious children on a trip to see a historic event reenacted when I had almost zero knowledge of the event.  This was going great.  So it transpired that what happened was that George Washington conducted a surprise maneouvre  whereby he crossed the river on Christmas night in order to attack the Hessian troops in Trenton.  They then crossed back to Pennsylvania with prisoners and some useful things they had purloined.  Washington’s troops would later cross again in order to defeat Cornwallis’ troops at Trenton.  This whole episode is the subject of Leutze’s famous painting.  So we watched the reenactors cross back and forth in the Durham boats, had our ears cleared and our ribs rattled by the boom of canon, and smelled the rotten egg of the smoke as it wafted thickly in our direction.



It ended and the crowds clapped and cheered.  My boys yippeed because they could finally depart.  Honestly, it was not the most exciting trip I have ever taken them on but, as I explained to them, it could have been worse: I could have taken them to the Christmas Day reenactment after all.  I realised, however, that my lack of engagement and enjoyment was down to my very limited knowledge about the War of Independence.  Given that we live in an area that is so connected to, so immersed in the history and events of that era, I really must make an effort to learn more.  I think, therefore, that we may well return to Washington Crossing at some stage in order to visit the buildings and learn a bit more about the events we saw being depicted, see replicas of the boats up close, that sort of thing.  Of course, persuading my kids to return might be a whole other thing.


Pirate Day at Fort Mifflin

Knowing that the next few weeks are going to be a slog because of moving house and the kids returning to school, we decided to dedicate yesterday to being a fun family day out.  Fort Mifflin was a place a few people had recommended to us and they happened to be throwing a pirate day so that seemed like a good option to pursue.  Two of our kids even got into the spirit of things by dressing up as pirates for the day.


Fort Mifflin is sited on an area of land named Mud Island.  Originally called Fort Island Battery, it was built in the 1770s on the Delaware River.  Nowadays that places it right next door to Philadelphia Airport so that large aircraft skim over the top of the Fort and there is a constant thundering, rumbling noise from all the take-offs and landings.  During the War of Independence, the British had bombarded Fort Mifflin following their conquest of Philadelphia – which was then the nation’s capital.  Following Independence, the American Army took over the fort and rebuilt it and it remained a military possession until the middle of the twentieth century when it was handed over to be a historic site.  Something that appealed to Mr Pict about the site was that it had housed prisoners during the Civil War.  However, the only time the Fort was ever involved in any sort of conflict was when it was besieged in 1777.  The American troops, far outnumbered by the British, managed to hold the fort for long enough for the Continental Army to reposition themselves.  I am not confident enough in my knowledge of military history to declare whether that was significant to the ultimate victory of the Americans over the British but clearly that was the most important episode in Fort Mifflin’s own history.

Another famous episode in Fort Mifflin’s history concerns the imprisonment of William Howe.  He was a Union soldier accused of desertion and murder during the Civil War.  While incarcerated at Fort Mifflin, Howe organised the escape of over 200 fellow prisoners.  He failed.  After spells in solitary confinement and at Eastern State Penitentiary, Howe was transferred back to the Fort in order be executed.  People actually paid for tickets to watch him be hanged.

But where are the pirates in this history of the Fort?  Hmmmm.  Well I suppose very vaguely it can be argued that the Fort was built at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers because it was an important trade route that needed to be protected and that, therefore, it might well have had to defend against pirate attacks.  Really though I think it is just a fun event for kids because really what kid (or adult) doesn’t love pirates?

We arrived just in time to watch some reenactors dressed as redcoats and militia men have a battle with some pirates.  The boys enjoyed watching all the skirmishes complete with loud explosions from smoking muskets.  Afterwards we chatted with some of the people portraying the soldiers and it turned out that two of the young men were from Nottingham in England.  One now lives locally and the other was on a two week vacation to visit his friend so had been enlisted to fight for the British and defend the fort.  Their kit was pretty serious and many of them were very immersed in the history, rattling off facts about American military history in great detail.  Mr Pict was in his element.  I rather suspect that if he ever has the time to do so, he might get involved in either a reenactment group or as a docent at some historical site.

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The kids loved exploring all of the tunnels that run into and under the Fort’s incredibly thick stone walls.  Some of the tunnels were fairly large and opened up into rooms that functioned as either stores or casemates.  Other tunnels were narrow and shallow and were for storing explosives.  The boys especially enjoyed the really dark tunnels, especially if we didn’t switch the torches on and were immersed in complete pitch darkness.  We also walked the fort’s walls to get better views of the layout of the various buildings within the walls and also views of the river, which was very busy with cargo ships, and across to New Jersey.  The kids were also able to participate in a lesson on throwing mortars by chucking water balloons at a plastic box representing a defensive position, thus learning that it was more effective to throw over the wall than at it.  We also spent some time in the pirate’s lair listening to them performing sea shanties, one of which was set to the same tune as the traditional Scottish folk song ‘Ye Jacobites by name’.

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The kids had been given a Scavenger hunt sheet to complete.  It listed items that could be found either on soldiers or on pirates and, once identified, the person who possessed each item had to sign the sheet.  All very official for pirates!  This was a great idea as it not only got the kids involved in looking at the detail of the costumes and equipment but also led us into chats with the knowledgeable people portraying the historical characters.  The pirates proved to be very hospitable, inviting us into their den and giving us a tour of their weapons and equipment.  The pirate captain even tried to recruit our youngest son as a crew member.  We also discovered that one of the pirates was originally from Glasgow and he was delighted to have a conversation with a fellow Scot.  Once the list was completed, we popped into the site shop where the kids were each rewarded with a miniature Fort Mifflin flag, which had originally been the flag of the Continental Navy, its thirteen red, white and blue stripes representing the original American colonies.  The kids were delighted with their prizes.

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Therefore, despite the fact that pirates only have a very tangential relationship to the history of the fort, just a sliver of relevance, the kids actually absorbed a lot of learning and new vocabulary without even realising they were doing anything but have fun.  And they always rooted for the pirates.