Spring Break 2022 – University of Maryland

While my kids get a week long Spring break, I only get a few days off work. We, therefore, opted to have a little mini-break in Washington DC, a location not too far from home and that would enable us to catch up with good friends we have not seen since before the pandemic.

We have also been thinking about introducing our middle two sons – currently a high school sophomore and freshman – to different types of universities so that they can begin to percolate their thoughts about where they would like to land up should they choose to continue into tertiary education. They have already visited a campus that is on the outskirts of a smaller city as we visited my oldest son at RIT. We thought, therefore, that we would make the University of Maryland a waypoint on our journey so that they could experience a campus that is more of a suburb with easy access to a major city.

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The University of Maryland’s mascot is a terrapin so there were terrapin statues, images, and references all over the place. Forget the reptiles, however, because I was more excited by the amphibian on campus. Jim Henson is a University alumnus so there is a statue of him and Kermit outside the student union building. As a lifelong Muppet fan, that was the highlight of the trip for me.

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It’s a lovely campus with appealing buildings and green spaces. You could not pay me to relive the first 13 years of my school education but I did enjoy my undergraduate and postgraduate years. Part of me wishes I could justify the resources to pursue a PhD because I just love learning and that academic atmosphere. I am, therefore, happy to be creating this program of college excursions. The 15 and 16 year olds decided they liked this type of campus. The 12 year old liked the fact they have their own ice cream producing dairy.

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Memorials at Night

After so many hours spent in Arlington National Cemetery, we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal.  Mr Pict and I had fond memories of eating in a Southern food restaurant in Alexandria, called Southside 851, so we headed there.  When we ate there in 2002, it was the first time I had had fried green tomatoes and I absolutely loved them.  We, therefore, ordered those as a shared starter.  They were just as delicious as I remembered them.  The other courses we ate were flavoursome and good quality but far too greasy for our palates.  Still, the calories had been well-earned and our full bellies set us up for an evening exploring some of the monuments and memorials of Washington DC at night.

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We started at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because I remembered being impressed by how it looked at night and because my kids had never visited it at any time of day at all.  I have to confess, however, that I was disappointed this time.  The lighting appeared weaker than I recalled, with some of the statues so poorly lit that they were almost obscured by the darkness, and definitely much less dramatic.  Between the dim lighting and the hordes of school groups clambering all over everything, my kids were distinctly unimpressed by what is actually a very striking memorial full of historical references and symbolism.  What was most aggravating, however, was that none of the water features were in action.  These obviously have aesthetic and sensory appeal but they also symbolise various aspects of FDR’s presidency so there absence undermined the impact of the whole memorial.  I actually felt annoyed that this was my kids’ first introduction to this memorial.

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A statue that was definitely as striking by night as it was by day was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.  This was my first time viewing it in the dark and the lighting was just spot on.  It’s an incredible melding of portraiture, symbolism, and messaging, and really very moving.

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Our group split up after that with Mr Pict taking some of the boys to the Lincoln Memorial (our 13 year old’s favourite) while I took our youngest son and the grandparents back to the car.  Once we were all back together again, we decided to visit one last memorial.  It has been over a quarter of a century since I last visited the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial and I had never seen it at night so I thought this was a good opportunity to show it to the kids, given they are familiar with the iconic photograph from which it takes its inspiration.  I think it is a memorial that really needs to be seen by daylight as too much of the detail is lost when it is not as well lit.

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Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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Indian Echo Caverns

We had a very busy, fun-filled Spring break last week.  Mr Pict took some time off work which meant we could undertake family expeditions, hit the road, and explore some places in the vicinity that we had not yet been to in the almost two and a half years since we arrived in America.

First up was a trek out to Hummlestown to visit the Indian Echo Caverns.  While my kids have been inside caves and down mines, this was their first time visiting caverns so we thought it would be a pretty cool trip.

The caverns are accessed by going on a guided tour.  Our guide was named Andrea and she was great: enthusiastic, knowledgeable, engaging, and pitching the talk just right for the spread of ages in the group.  She led us down to the mouth of the cave, near the banks of the Swatara Creek.  Everyone Ooohed and Aaahed as soon as we stepped inside and saw the stalactites and stalagmites lit by the orange glow of spotlights.  That was nothing compared to what was to come, however.

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We were led from chamber to chamber in the limestone cavern and Andrea explained the science behind the formation of the flowstone structures, the way the calcite is deposited over time, pointing out places where visitors from a bygone era had touched the rock over and over and effectively killed the flowstone, and pointing out interesting structures – including one large stalactite that most definitely looked like an ear of corn and a tiered wedding cake.  She also paused in one chamber to tell a fairy tale that used formations in the chamber, including a dragon and a wizard, as its cast of characters.  This really helped hold the kids’ attention.

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With uneven, sodden ground, which was slippery underfoot at times, minimal lighting, and narrow passageways, we had a little taster of what it must feel like to explore caverns for the first time.  Our guide pointed out that earlier visitors would have used much more precarious routes in and out of the cavern and between chambers.  I was very glad that the modern routes had been carved out since the caverns became a tourist attraction in the 1920s.  At one point, the guide cut the lights for a few minutes so that we could all experience total darkness.  The boys thought that was totally cool.

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Most impressive were the wedding chamber, with its layers of pale, glistening calcite, dripping like icing from a tiered cake, twinkling in the light, and the chamber that gave us a view of a crystal clear lake.  Those areas were pretty magical and otherworldly.

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Most poignant, however, was the tale of William Wilson who had lived in the caverns as a hermit for the last 19 years of his life.  Andrea pitched the story at family friendly level, mentioning a tragic bereavement that had led Wilson to flee civilization and company and seek out the solitude offered by the cavern.  She showed us the ledge where Wilson had slept and the still visible soot from where he had made fires to heat water and cook food.  It was pretty emotive stuff even without the full story.

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The full story, however, was terribly tragic.  William’s sister Elizabeth was found guilty of murdering her twin sons and sentenced to be executed.  Believing her to be innocent and her lover to be the guilty party, a pardon was sought and eventually granted.  The delivery of the pardon was entrusted to William but fate was not on his side.  The ferry across the Schuylkill River was not operating because of terrible weather so William drove his horse into the icy water and then finally swam across.  He arrived minutes too late.  Elizabeth had been hanged.  This then was the horribly tragic event that had led William to live as a hermit in the caverns from 1802.

The presence of children in the group was probably the reason why the guide told us an abridged version of the Pennsylvania Hermit’s sad tale though I expect my kids, lovers of the lurid and macabre, probably would have been spellbound to be told the tale while in the cold and dark of the caverns.