Chrysler Museum of Art

My in-laws had taken the Pictlings to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art while Mr Pict and I were still at home in Pennsylvania.  They, therefore, elected to stay at the vacation house and play on the beach while my husband and I went into Norfolk to visit the Museum.  The basis of the museum is the collection of Walter Chrysler, son of the car manufacturer, which he donated in the 1970s.  It’s an amazing and impressive collection housed in a wonderful space.  What is even more incredible is the fact that admission is free.  It was the absolute highlight of my Spring Break trip to Virginia.

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We started out in the glass galleries.  I am a massive fan of art glass.  I wish I could collect glass but I have kids and cats in addition to limited disposable income so I just have to admire and covet glass.  The collection was beautifully arranged with clear and informative labels.  Mr Pict liked the ancient glass, especially the Roman pieces.  One of these ancient pieces was signed by the maker, Ennion, in Greek.  I thought that was pretty remarkable, to actually be able to know the name of the glassmaker across all those centuries.  I also enjoyed seeing a harmonium with its glasses ready to make music, and a sugar bowl containing coins within bubbles of blown glass, glass pens, and a mustard dish in the form of a bull’s head.  My favourite area in the glass collection was dedicated to the Art Nouveau movement and contained a trove of wonderful pieces.  There were glowing stained glass windows, lustrous vases, intricately designed table lamps, and glass sculptures by the likes of Lalique.  I also loved the 20th Century and contemporary glass area.  There was a window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Darwin D Martin house, a cabinet of glass curiosities by Steffen Dam that mimicked natural forms, a little glass house, and a wonderfully shimmering circle that really drew my eye no matter where I was in the room.

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After visiting the glass collection, it was time to go and see a demonstration of glass blowing.  We headed across the street to the studio space and took some seats in the front row.  We got to see one of the in-house glass artisans working with an intern under the instruction of the artist Stephen Paul Day.  The process was very complicated and was fascinating to watch.  It involved glass blowing, inserting ceramic sculptures into the glass, building up layers of glass gradually, attaching glass sculptures together, and a whole lot of other stuff besides.  It was a great demonstration since we got to see a number of skills and techniques and the woman who was narrating was very knowledgeable and engaging.  I certainly learned a great deal.

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We returned to the Museum to see some of the non-glass exhibits.  We were too short on time to visit every gallery so we elected to focus on the Impressionists and American Impressionists.  Each room was beautifully curated with every piece given room to breathe and be appreciated in isolation while also communicating with other exhibits in the room.  I was generally very taken with the Chrysler Museum, would have loved to have spent more time there, and would definitely return if I was in the area again.

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That evening we decided to do something together as a gang of eight.  We decided to go to the Commodore Theatre in Portsmouth, a restored Art Deco cinema.  The cinema itself was impressive with its 41 foot screen and incredible sound system.  The sound in particular was very immersive.  We were also seated in armchairs which made it very comfy and the whole place was so massive that we had ample space around us.  What made this cinema trip a new experience for we Picts, however, was that it was a dinner cinema.  We have some in our home area but have never been so this was a first time for us.  We could, therefore, order food and drinks which were delivered to our tables and then we could munch our way through the movie.  I did not actually eat as I was too full from lunch but the others did.  The food was standard junk food – pizza, nachos, chicken strips – but the kids all enjoyed the novelty of eating dinner in the cinema.  The movie we saw – Ready Player One – was pretty mediocre but was made more enjoyable and entertaining by the context.

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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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Ambling in Annapolis

For reasons too tedious to explain but involving leave entitlement, ceaseless winter storms, and rolling rescheduling, Mr Pict and I found ourselves spending a weekend driving to and from Washington DC.  My in-laws had flown in from England and met us there in order to then take our four children on a Spring break vacation.  Mr Pict and I, therefore, found ourselves unexpectedly child-free in Washington DC.

We spent the evening catching up with friends over dinner and wine.  Before I earned that grown up treat, however, I had to trail my husband around some Civil War sites he had never visited.  As I have previously explained, my husband spent his early teens living in the suburbs of DC.  How he managed to live there for years plus have us return from the UK to visit his parents several times without ever visiting these sites is beyond me.  However, as a Civil War nerd, it is on his bucket list to visit just about every obscure Civil War site in the nation so I was happy to indulge him and his bucket list collecting.

First up was Fort Stevens.  I don’t know why I made any sort of assumptions but I had expected the site to be a little more grand or at least cared for than it clearly was.  Instead, what I found were some mounds of earth on a patch of scrappy grass in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, a couple of canons surrounded by litter and broken glass, and the noise of a construction site that abutted the remains of the fort.  Fort Stevens’ significance rests in the fact that it was the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the limits of the nation’s capital and it was the only time when a serving President came under enemy fire.  The history is that, in July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops decided to march on the capital following a battle in nearby Frederick.  They encountered Fort Stevens – one of a series of forts protecting the city – and there was a brief battle that repelled the Confederate soldiers.  Lincoln and his wife visited the fort and witnessed the battle, hence his coming under fire.  A rock with a bronze plaque marks the spot where Lincoln stood on the earthworks.

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I was underwhelmed by Fort Stevens but the next stop on the itinerary was a little more my cup of tea in that it was a cemetery.  Battleground Cemetery contains the graves of the 40 soldiers who died in the defence of Fort Stevens and others who fought there – the last to be interred being buried there as recently as 1936.  Again there was a Lincoln connection since Abe attended the burial cemetery and dedicated the land, which makes it one of America’s smallest national cemeteries.  It was indeed a modest cemetery.  There were a few regimental memorials within its walls but the graves themselves were very small and simple and arranged in a circle.  It was well-maintained and a tiny pocket of peace and quiet despite being within a major city.

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The following day we decided to stop off in Annapolis as we wended our way back to the Philly suburbs.  Being a bitterly cold Sunday in March, there was not an awful lot for us to do but wander around and absorb the charm of Annapolis’ historic district.  To give our pit stop a little more focus, we decided to visit the Maryland State House.  Occupied since the 1770s, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous use and once served as the nation’s capitol.

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I started out my visit there by stopping by the statue of Thurgood Marshall.  It depicts Marshall as a young lawyer at the start of his career and behind him are pillars reading “Equal Justice Under Law”.  The sculpture also contains three other related statues: one of Donald Gaines Murray, whose case was one of Marshall’s early victories in the fight to desegregate schools, and two children who symbolise Brown V the Board of Education.  It used to be the case that a statue of Roger Taney stood on the grounds but his statue was removed last year.  I personally was glad to see Marshall celebrated at the State House and to see Taney’s absence.

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Once inside, we explored the various rooms on a self-guided tour. We had the whole place virtually to ourselves so it was very relaxing and informal.  We had a peek into the current Senate and House chambers.  Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the voting buttons on each desk whereas I was enamoured of the Tiffany skylights.  The Caucus room was very dark but was filled with gleaming silverware.  This was a service from the USS Maryland which is designed with lots of references and symbols relating to the state.  I like things that are shiny but the silverware was all a bit fussy for my taste.  I wouldn’t want to keep it polished either.  Just as well I will never own a silver service set then!  Probably the most historically significant room in the State House is the Old Senate Chamber.  It was in this space, in December 1783, that George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army thus establishing an important precedent for America’s democracy.

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Back out on the cold streets, we wandered around and poked our noses into the odd shop.  We spent a lot of time rummaging in a very cluttered, very musty, but entirely wonderful book shop.  We then wandered down to the Dock area.  There I found the statue commemorating Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Kunta Kinte, the fictionalised African ancestor of Haley’s that is the starting point of his saga.  We sat there and people- and duck-watched for a bit before walking back through the old streets and back to the car.

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This was my first visit to Annapolis since I first visited in 1995 and I had forgotten how quaint and attractive it is.  At some point we will have to return with the kids, in warmer temperatures, and when there is more to do.

Assateague Island

The entire focus of our trip was a visit to Assateague Island – everything else we had done as we travelled south along the coast was just grist to the mill.  Assateague is a barrier island that is split between Maryland and Virginia.  We were visiting the National Seashore (this bagging another National Park property) which is wholly within Maryland’s border.  We began our trip, as we tend to do, with a stop by into the NPS Visitor Centre.  We have been to many NPS Visitor Centres but the one at Assateague was among the best.  The information regarding the flora, fauna, and history of the island was presented in easily digested gobbets, amply illustrated with images and objects.  My boys particularly enjoyed a tortoise shell and a horse skeleton.  Best of all, however, there were live whelks and horseshoe crabs in a touch pool tank.  They spent ages guddling around in the water.  I think they may want a pet horseshoe crab now.

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We began our actual exploration of the island with a circular trail through sand dunes.  This afforded the boys ample opportunities to climb things, whether trees or large pieces of driftwood.  There was also a crumbling raised asphalt road dating from the interwar years that appeared at various points on the trail.  That was a weird juxtaposition among the sand dunes and trees.  Mr Pict thought the NPS should have made an effort to completely demolish and remove it but to my mind I think that it forms part of the history of the island and I rather like the idea that it sends a message about humans trying to develop the island but being repelled by nature.

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The next stop was the ocean.  Yes.  The ocean.  In late November.  My kids were adamant that they were not visiting the beach without going in the water.  I had absolutely forbidden it the previous day, when we were on the Delaware Coast, because the wind chill was bitter.  There was much wailing and whining and protesting, chief among the arguments being that we used to let them go into the sea in Scotland on chilly days, albeit chilly summer days.  I was not persuaded.  On Assateague, however, I relented but advised that they just paddle at first while they determined whether they could actually cope with the cold.  They donned their swimming kit, bounded across the sand, and were in the water in no time at all.  I meanwhile wore their beach towels like shawls as I watched them.  They did abide by my ruling and paddled for a short while before they decided to jump around in the waves and inevitably get soaked.  No swimming but plenty of jumping and dunking.

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Of course, what Assateague is most famed for is its population of feral horses.  We had seen one, through some bushes, as we drove onto the island but we were obviously keen to see more.  Once everyone was dried and dressed, therefore, we headed back along the road and had several horse encounters.  We found a safe place to pull over and park up so that the two younger boys and I could hop out of the car and see the horses up close – though not too close, of course, and within the rules.  Nobody really knows how it was that domesticated horses became feral horses occupying the island.  There is, of course, the usual story about them having been survivors of a shipwreck but they are probably just the descendants of the horses pastured there by 17th Century farmers.  Whatever their origins, we were delighted to see them as closely as we did.  My 10 year old loves horses so he was over the moon.  It also meant we had achieved the main goal of our entire overnight trip and we got to end our Thanksgiving travels with a highlight.

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First Time Ice Skating

When we travel, we tend to be so busy from sun up to beyond sun down that we really only need our accommodation to provide us with a clean space in which to sleep.  Not requiring much out of a hotel room beyond it being clean and tidy allows us to travel on a budget and stretch a dime.  We, therefore, had little concern about choosing a super cheap room in a large hotel in Ocean City, Maryland.  The room turned out to be a good size and was clean and tidy. The hotel was a bit dated and could do with a lick of paint and polish but we can overlook such things when just treating the room like a dormitory.  The only real issue was that the walls were really thin and we unfortunately had super noisy neighbours.

As far as the kids were concerned, however, the hotel was a win because it not only had a larger than average indoor pool but also had an ice skating rink.  After filling up on breakfast at a local cafe, therefore, we headed back to the hotel so that our youngest two sons – aged 8 and 10 – could go ice skating for the first time ever.  They donned their ice skates and headed out onto the ice.  At first their legs were wonky and wobbly, like newborn deer, so we gave them some support frames so that they could get used to the required gait and rhythm without worrying about falling or even concerning themselves with balance.  After just a few circuits of the rink, however, they were ready to ditch the frames and skate unassisted.  They absolutely loved it, had a whale of a time, were excited to have learned a new skill, and experienced a sense of achievement as a result.

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Exploring History on the Delaware Coast

Having visited the Air Mobility Command Museum as our first stop, we moved further down the Delaware coast to another military history site.  This was Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen.  When we decided that we would be travelling along the Delaware coast, I thought it would be great to visit Cape Henlopen to see the lighthouse.  I have a bit of a thing for lighthouses which I have steadfastly prevented from evolving into a proper obsession (because I have enough of those).  Thankfully I thought to google it because the Cape Henlopen lighthouse fell into the sea in the 1920s.  Oops.  Bit late for that one then.  It reminded me of the time we thought to seek out the Coney Island elephant.  So no lighthouses for me but another dollop of military history instead.

Fort Miles dates from the Second World War and was built to defend America’s eastern coast against a potential German invasion.  We started exploring the site at an observation tower.  These observation towers were used to triangulate the position of any vessel that came into view and looked suspect.  Mr Pict and the boys climbed a spiral staircase inside the tower and popped out on top.  I decided to not put myself through the acrophobia to take in the views given it was mostly flat and uninteresting.  No regrets.  After a period of tree climbing, we wandered towards the shore.

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Our walk brought us past empty buildings that were once in use as barracks.  These buildings, which once housed over 2000 military personnel, had no doors so we could wander into them and have a nose around.  The low afternoon sun created interesting shadows inside many of them.  Mr Pict and the kids liked sitting on the 8 inch guns that were in the vicinity of these buildings.  We also saw a 16 inch gun which was apparently fired just the once in order to test it.  The gun we saw was not original to Fort Miles and had instead been removed from the USS Missouri.  The gun appears in famous photos of the signing of the Japanese surrender which happened on board the battleship.

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We stopped for a late lunch / early dinner in Rehoboth Beach and chose to eat in Arena’s Deli.  We had read good reviews of it and liked that it had a casual atmosphere plus the menu seemed like it would have something for everyone.  We all opted for comfort food and not so healthy options but it was our only meal of the day so we gave ourselves a pass.  Any excuse.  The food was all delicious and very well cooked and satisfied our hungry bellies for the final leg of the day’s travel.  The sun was setting as we headed towards Ocean City so we pulled over at a beach to watch the sun sink below the horizon line.  The sunset was gorgeous but what most thrilled the boys was finding horseshoe crabs on the shore line.

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After that, we checked into our hotel in Ocean City, the boys went swimming in the large hotel pool, and we headed to our beds to rest ahead of the next day’s adventures.

Air Mobility Command Museum

We decided to use the time over Thanksgiving break for a spontaneous family trip.  We found a cheap as chips hotel room in Ocean City, Maryland – because really not many people are clamoring to hang out at the coast in late November – which determined our trajectory.  We, therefore, spent the Friday following Thanksgiving moseying down the Delaware Coast.

Our first stop of the trip was at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.  Located next to Dover Air Force Base, it proved to be a vast showroom (split between a hangar and an airfield) of military aircraft.  Now, I am not someone who is into military history or militaria and nor am I interested in vehicles so this blog post is not going to be replete with technical information.  I honestly don’t think I can recall what the majority of the aircraft were even called even though I asked Mr Pict to refresh my memory yesterday.  This will, therefore, be a more impressionistic account of the time we spent there.  I will state, however, that despite my lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject, I thought the Museum itself was really excellent.  The variety of military aircraft was impressive, of course, but there was also ample information accompanying each exhibit, there was space to move around each plane, helicopter and glider, and they were not so reverential that they prevented visitors accessing all the planes.  This latter point was somewhat critical for the success of our visit since my kids tend to baulk at visiting plane and train museums that take a “look but don’t touch” attitude.  And I have not mentioned that access to the Museum is entirely free.  We gave a donation but there was no pressure to do so.

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We started in the hangar and I was able to hook the boys’ interest right away.  There was a glider on display, one side of which had been removed to reveal that it contained some sort of military road vehicle as its cargo.  The kids found this sort of aircraft autopsy interesting.  We also learned that these gliders became rather sought after following the Second World War not because of the gliders themselves but because of the crates they were shipped in.  People would build houses from the disassembled crates.

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War II plane.  They knew about ball turret gunners and their perilous placement on war planes but seeing one up close actually drove home the vulnerability of the poor gunner.  They were even able to peer inside and see how terribly cramped the space was.  A separate replica demonstrated, through use of a dummy, how the gunner would have been positioned inside the ball turret, tucked up like a fetus in a mechanical womb.  It made me vividly recollect Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and I felt very squeamish just thinking about the intense claustrophobia let alone the imminent danger.

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We saw simulators and training aircraft, mid-air refuelling vehicles, fighter jets, and helicopters – including a Huey which even I could identify – and a machine for making dog tags, which was somehow both fascinating and poignant.  The boys especially enjoyed the airfield exhibits, however, because they had space to roam and even run.  Best of all, however, was the fact that several of the aircraft were open to visitors meaning they could actually clamber aboard and experience the interior of the planes.  Having seen the troop seating with all the webbing on the interior walls in movies and documentaries, it was interesting to be able to experience something of its discomfort for ourselves.  It was also interesting to see how cargo would be stacked up inside planes and to learn about the incredible capacity of some planes, including one that could fit several fully assembled Hueys.  A tour guide demonstrated how strips in the floor could be flipped so that regular passenger seating could be clipped into place.  The boys also got to clamber around inside a Hercules (see: I know the name of that one) and sit in the cockpit.

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Military museums always have to go a long way to win me over because, as stated above, I really have pretty much no interest in the subject of military history.  As I possess only very general knowledge of military transport, I admit to having had low expectations of this one.  But win me over it did.  It was accessible, provided information that worked as an “idiot’s guide” for the uninformed (me), spacious enough that we never remotely felt harassed or harried by the presence of others, offered variety, and allowed the kids to actually engage with what they were looking at.  It was a really good museum and was a great start to our trip.

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