Forgotten Son: The Birthplace of President James Monroe

By Jeffrey Carl

From Legacy Magazine, January 2003

Nearly ten years ago, I spent a college summer as a reporter for the county newspaper in rural Westmoreland County, Virginia. Westmoreland, nestled in the “northern neck” of Virginia between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers, is blessed with an enviable surplus of historical sites. 

James Monroe birthplace monument, January 2003

Almost anywhere, the birthplace of a president would be marked as a site of significant historical importance and tourism interest. But Westmoreland boasts the birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee (both of whom have lavish commemorative historical sites). In a county with an abundance of historical favorite sons, former President James Monroe finishes as a distant third place. In the summer of 1994, I was assigned a story about a barely-noticed granite marker and state historical signpost on a roadside, dedicated to the birthplace of perhaps the most overlooked of America’s founding fathers.

James Monroe was born on April 28, 1758 on a 505-acre plantation near what is today Colonial Beach, Virginia.  He left at age 16 to attend the College of William and Mary, then quit school to join the army when the Revolutionary War broke out. Monroe facilitated the Louisiana Purchase during his time as minister plenipotentiary to France, and as minister to Spain he negotiated the purchase of the Floridas.  In 1817 he was elected to the first of two terms as president, in a time that was later called “the era of good feelings.” He was the author of the “Monroe Doctorine,” which became the cornerstone of American foreign policy for generations.

Access across the fence to the Monroe birthplace monument

We know comparatively little of James Monroe personally. He stood 6’2”, while his wife was a petite 4’8”.  Thomas Jefferson called him “a man whose soul might be turned wrong-side outwards without discovering a blemish to the world.”  We know that he had a fondness for waffles.

After Monroe retired from public office, he fell on financial hard times. He petitioned Congress for back pay, but President Andrew Jackson blocked the funding of his request; in 1831, he was finally given only half of what he had asked for originally.  On July 4, 1831 – five years to the day after the deaths of his friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – James Monroe died.

The James Monroe monument alongside Virginia State Route 205

Neither the man or his birthplace knew much peace after his death: Monroe was buried in New York, but was later exhumed and moved to Richmond. The owner of his birthplace site after the Civil War used the tombstones of the Monroe ancestors as weights for his harrow, and then flung them into the creek when the work was finished.  Over time, the land was parceled into numerous plots and sold. 

In 1941, a Monroe Birthplace Monument Association was formed, which acquired the area around Monroe’s actual birth site. An access road was built to the site, but the Association’s plans never progressed beyond that stage and in 1973 the land fell to public ownership. For years, various government and private organizations were approached about sponsoring the development of the historic site, but all refused or were unable to raise the needed funds. In 1993, several chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars were kind enough to pay for a granite marker at the site, nestled among a grove of trees along the side of State Route 205.

When I visited the site in 1994, there was a certain thrill to the lonely and solemn spot, and a feeling that the site was my little secret. With no noise or other visitors present, it was blissfully easy to envision the area as it once was – a luxury almost never available at most historical sites. But there was also a sense of vacancy, a tangible knowledge that something should be there which was not.

The Monroe birthplace monument in its clearing

I returned to the site this past winter and found that the site remained just as it was a decade ago. But in the intervening years, dedicated area residents had continued to push for something to be done, and it appears now that things are at last changing for the better. Plans were drawn up for a memorial site that would include a nature trail, picnic area and historical signage, and the Westmoreland County government has been awarded a grant to begin developing the site. But the work has not yet begun, and today the site remains just as it was.

The lonely granite marker still stands there as a reminder of both the sadness of the neglect of historical sites and the hope that the work of determined and caring individuals can help to bring that neglect to an end.

Senate Candidate Oliver North Visits Westmoreland County

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, August 1 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

For weeks, the messages arrived to herald the news.  Royal messenger faxes rolled out of the machine, announcing his progress and later his impending arrival.   He – Citizen North, Senate Subcommitte Witness North, Celebrity North, Retired Marine Lt. Col. North, “By golly, vote Ollie” North, Candidate North – Oliver North was coming to Westmoreland County.

He is perhaps the most famous public figure in Virginia.  He appeared on live national television – under the gun like perhaps only two other men, Clarence Thomas and O.J. Simpson have been – and not only survived, but became a celebrity.  He became a folk hero to some, a demon to others.  He faced trial and conviction and then was cleared.  His face has adorned the cover of national magazines and his picture burned in a Billy Joel video.  He was scrutinized over innuendo concerning his secretary, Fawn Hall; he publicly challenged terrorist Abu Nidal to a one-on-one fight; and he was unceremoniously all-but disowned by several major figures of the Reagan administration and the military.  But he had survived.  And he had prospered.  And now he was coming to Westmoreland County.

And now it is 5:10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 27, and the alarm goes off in my apartment in Richmond.  I clean up, shave, and dress in an old suit,  pre-rumpled to achieve journalistic credibility.  It only takes me four tries to tie my tie straight.  Then I drink coffee and ride off into the sunrise to meet Candidate North at his first campaign stop.

It is 7:15 a.m., and I’m standing in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Montross.  There are only a few other people there, standing in front of the plant, and they are obviously other journalists.  They wear the standard reporter uniform of rumpled, kinda-nice clothes, armed to the teeth with notepads and vests filled with extra rolls of film.

At 7:28, the Winnebago arrives.  The North campaign staff calls it “Asphalt One,” and it is covered from stem to stern in North for Senate posters.  The tour mascot is on board, an armadillo – North later says that it represents his tough hide, and he jokingly identifies the armadillo as the “state bird” of Texas, where he was born.  North also notes that whenever he is quoted as such, newspapers get letters correcting him that the armadillo is not a bird.

And then Oliver North steps out of Asphalt One.  He is dressed in a light blue button-down shirt, tan slacks, and sensible shoes.  The flecks of gray in his hair and his boyish face, coupled with his outfit, make him look as if he stepped out of a local theater revival of Mister Roberts, playing the title character.  Candidate North has arrived, and he is all smiles and handshakes as he proceeds into the plant.  

He walks through the plant, shaking hands and talking, while the reporters circle him at a distance like moths around a porch light.  They look at the crates of Coca-Cola products piled to the ceiling, they snap pictures of the employees or the bus, and they try to talk to the randomly-selected spectators for some “local color.”

North campaign’s press coordinator for this stretch of the trip, Dan McLagan, bounds out of the bus.  He is accompanied by other soldiers in the cause, armed with bumper stickers and pamphlets, ready to give them to anyone and/or everyone with hair-trigger quickness.  Most of the workers in the factory really don’t seem all that excited about any of this.

I wander over to McLagan – an affable character, casually dressed, who occasionally lights one of his Marlboro Lights while he’s talking to you – and he tells me 

that the North crew is rested and ready, having spent a fine night in the Inn at Montross, a hundred yards away.  The tour begins here, moves to a rally in Colonial Beach at the house of Jeff and Yvonne Kern, and next to the King George Fire Station on Dahlgren Road.  McLagan tells me he’ll try to get me “on the bus” somewhere in between, before the tour heads over hill and dale, all over Virginia – it will be a long day for Candidate North and his retinue.

I talk to two local residents who have come out on this frosty morning to wish North well, Jim and Jean Dundas.  They talk about how misrepresented and misunderstood North often is by the press, and how his sincere stances have earned him a lot of enemies.  

They say it seems that his enemies are unwilling to let the matters of the Iran-Contra hearings rest, and Jim Dundas mention the Central American and Cuban ties of some of the members of the panel that grilled North.  He gives me a pamphlet from North’s campaign committee about the “Four big lies about Ollie North and Iran-Contra.”  

After a few minutes, the tour group packs up to head to the next destination.  The North Winnebago looks like an alien mothership that has collected all its crew – only after leaving behind bumper stickers to monitor the planet while they’re gone – and left for the next solar system.  The press members scurry to their cars like Air Force chase planes.  I’m one of them.

It’s 8:35 a.m., and I park my car and walk towards the Kerns’ house for the rally.  I suppose that Asphalt One drives much closer to a law-abiding 55 miles per hour than I do, since the Winnebago arrives about a minute after me.

There seem to be a about 100 people present, and they clap and cheer and North strides off the bus and on to the house’s porch.  There are signs and banners and pamphlets and doughnuts, and the doughnuts are very good.

North ascends the porch steps and, after a mercifully brief introduction, begins his speech.  

North supporters will probably disagree with you if you say this, but an impartial viewer observing one of North’s campaign speeches for the first time and knowing nothing else about him would probably conclude that Candidate North’s entire platform is anti-incumbency, anti-the current system.  

He pledges to fight the “tyranny of the left.”  He says that the moribund monster of the current bureaucracy must be done away with, and that you can only “cut the budget by changing the process.”  North says that he doesn’t want to see the reserved congressional parking spots at National Airport in Washington, D.C. to be reserved for him or for anybody – with the possible exception, he says, of making them reserved for disabled veterans.  He speaks of getting tough with the criminals that the liberal establishment has mollycoddled.  “It’s time,” he says, “that we turn these career criminals into career inmates.  We need to weld the doors shut.”  

“Some people,” North says, “say I’m not gonna fit in.  And they’re right.”  North cracks that Jimmy Stewart smile of his.  People around me begin to sporadically “Amen” during the rest of the speech.  “I’m not going to be invited,” North says, “to the two-cocktails-before-lunch parties, or the Barbra Streisand concerts.”

North tells the flock that he decided to run on the day after the 1993 Presidential Inauguration “when we elected whatsisname.”  North calls the Clinton (whatsisname) administration “so liberal it’s scary.”  Ollie, being the complete anti-politician, promises to serve at most two terms in the U. S. Senate and then retire from public service.  

Undaunted by such claims, a young girl standing near me is wearing a “Ollie North for President” tee-shirt.

Any film student watching this rally could immediately identify the scene: Frank Capra, directing Mr. North Goes to Washington.  All political rallies have an overt element of campy super-patriotism to them, but North has pulled out all the stops.  The amazing thing about him, though, is that after you talk to the man you become convinced that it isn’t just an act.  Oliver North may be the Jimmy Stewart and Apple Pie candidate, for real.

North identifies his one special interest that he will bow to as the families of Virginia.  He has a grin that he applies to phrases like, “I believe we’re gonna pull this off…” that makes people all warm and fuzzy inside.  Some people are thrilled by his 110 percent All-American traits, and some are frightened by them.  Whether he is right or wrong, he communicates an unavoidable air of sincere belief in what he is saying.

Although this seemed to many unthinkable – it still seems that way, to many – recent polls show Oliver North running neck and neck with incumbent Democrat Charles “Chuck” Robb.  North has gotten an early start on the campaign, with a TV and campaign tour blitz that has left the other candidates in the dust.

I talk to one of North’s campaign team members about the competition.  He says that North has the advantages of an early start and a lot of people willing to donate money to his cause.  What about the renegade-Republican independent candidate Marshall Coleman?  “We make more money before breakfast than he has this whole campaign,” he says.

This statement may not be all hyperbole; the weekend before the tour, a fax arrived from the Oliver North for Senate Committee, declaring that the North Campaign had broken the towering $10,000,000 mark.  North proudly notes that the average contribution is under $30, showing his ties to the individual voter; opponents claim that more than half of the recent contributions have come from California, rather than Virginia.

North closes the speech by asking the crowd for three things.  “First, your prayers,” he says.  “They say that you can’t win a campaign these days by talking about the power of prayer … we shall see.”  More “Amens” are heard from throughout the crowd, but not as many as when he was talking about budget deficit reduction.  “I’m living proof of the power of prayer,” he says, and smiles earnestly.

“The second is your pledges,” he says, adding that it is the everyday voter that provides the campaign with the money and the volunteers to keep going.

“And third, I ask you,” North says, “to reach out and find five people who didn’t vote in the last election, and make sure they vote in this one.”

Having concluded his speech, North opens up the floor to questions for one of his “people’s press conferences,” where the people have a chance to ask the questions and not depend upon the “liberal media” for their information.

One woman asks how people react to his having lied to Congress.  North answers – he has probably only had to answer this particular question about five thousand times – that he did not lie to congress, and that an examination of the facts will show that he stayed true to his duty and followed his orders.  The ghost of Iran-Contra will be summoned forth wherever Retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North goes for a very long time.

Jeff Kern, who has been standing behind North on the porch, steps forward and announces that unfortunately the tour is behind schedule, and North will only have 

limited time.  And yet North manages to talk to as many people as he can, smiling and shaking hands.

I ask local resident Susan Wallcraft why she came to the rally.  “I’d heard about it at the town council meeting,” she said.  Is she a prospective North voter?  “Yes,” she says, “we’ve pretty well decided, after we found that he really hadn’t lied to congress.”

Dan McLagan tracks me down amidst the mob leaving the rally, and leads me to Asphalt One to wait for North to finish.  He offers me a coke, or some grapes, even though their refrigerator is pretty sparsely stocked.  I take a Pepsi, and fumble through my notes.

And then North gets in the bus.  He reaches across the aisle and shakes my hand firmly.

The Winnebago pulls away from Jeff and Yvonne Kern’s house, and Oliver North perches on a seat across from me.  The lady in the front passenger seat says, “Wave to the folks, colonel,” and he turns around to the window and waves at the last few supporters who line the road.  

Then it is just me and Oliver North.  I work out the nervous lump that has been building in my throat and I ask a question.  In fact, I ask several.  Here are the results:

What is the last good book that Oliver North read?  “Well, I’m still in the process of reading Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues,” he says.

How does it feel to be a celebrity?  “It would be fine if I were a rock star,” he says, “but it’s not something I intended to be.  I just wanted to be a marine.”

Doesn’t all the negative attention sometimes hurt, like the sharply-barbed recent jabs in the nationally-syndicated comic strip Doonesbury?  “No, you just get used to it,” he says.  “That Doonesbury stuff – well, some of it’s actually funny.”

What did the young Ollie want to be when he grew up?  “I went through all the usual stages,” North muses, “fireman, policeman, cowboy …”  But by the time he graduated high school, he knew that the service was the life for him.  “I’m lucky enough,” he says, “to have been able to do something I really wanted to do for 22 years.”

Who are Oliver North’s heroes?  His father, he says.  Ronald Reagan is named, as is his wife Betsy.  North also cites as a hero “the young machine gunner who saved my life in Vietnam.”  He says that his heroes are also all the people who work hard for themselves and succeed.

What would he have to do in his life, for him to consider it – in the final accounting – to have been worthwhile?  “I’ve already done it,” he says, “by being a good father and a good husband.”  He says that he puts a lot of stock in the Marine motto, semper fidelis: always faithful.

Does he belong to a particular church?  “Yes, we attend the Church of the Apostles, in Fairfax.”  He says that he has not always been as personally religiously committed as he is today, but he was brought up in a good Christian household, and knew what he believed in.

If he could change one thing about himself, what would Oliver North change?  “I’d give myself less pride in being a self-made man,” he says.  “Pride leads to thick-headedness.”  I think to myself that the Bible also says that “pride goeth before a tumble.”

Who came up with the “By golly, vote Ollie” slogan?  “It came from a supporter,” he says.  “Most of them come from clever people who just think them up themselves.”  He produces a stack of bumper stickers given to him by a supporter who dreamed up a slogan and then printed it: a reminder to vote for North, or “Get Robbed.”

What is, at the heart, the essence of America?  “Well,” he says, “I can’t reduce it to a bumper sticker.”  But he does say that America is a nation “blessed with bounty beyond measure,” and founded around one word: “liberty.”

North praises the Bill of Rights, and says that “you get a sense, in the seminal documents of this nation, that we didn’t get these rights from the government; we were blessed with them.”  

“But,” he says, “200 years later – in just the last 90 days – you can see these rights being violated.”  He cites the abridgement of abortion protesters’ First Amendment right to assemble peacably.  He notes the violations of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by anti-gun legislation.  North says that the Fourth Amendment protection form illegal search and seizure is not being received by poor black mothers in public housing whose houses are invaded by the police.  

He cites the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that the government cannot seize property without fair recompense, and then says that the Environmental Protection Agency can come along and “declare your land a protected wetland, and the value is destroyed.  You can’t build anything on it.”  North warns of the danger of “environmental radicals.”

“You have to stop,” North says, “and say, ‘What happened to these amendments?’”

What about North’s recent statement that drug users should receive penalties nearly as high as those for drug dealers?  Is drug use a moral wrong, or a societal wrong?

“All law is based on moral law,” North says.  “There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments about the 55 mile per hour speed limit,” he says while I think ack to beating the Winnebago to the rally after it had a three-minute head start, “but the moral idea is there – you don’t go too fast, or you’ll hurt yourself or someone else.”

“There is no stigma against drug use in this country,” North says, “and there needs to be.”

How, then, does that idea relate to alcohol and tobacco?  North waves this off on the grounds of alcohol and tobacco not being impairing drugs like drugs are.   “There are laws,” he says, “about how much alcohol you can drink, so you’re not impaired.  And tobacco is not an impairing drug.”

He cites how much more dangerous drugs are than they have been in the more permissive past: “The marijuana people are smoking today has much more HTC [Tetrahydracannabis, or THC, the active narcotic in marijuna] than it did 25 years ago.”  I don’t correct him on the spelling, and the bus slows down as we approach the next rally.  

“Um,” I ask, “could I get an autograph for my little brother?”

“Sure thing,” North says, and writes one: “To Matthew– very best, Oliver L. North.”  I thank him and shake his hand and Oliver is gone and Candidate North is back.

At 9:28, Asphalt One’s door opens and North steps out into the light.  I follow him out the door and am greeted by the sight of a rally teeming with probably 250 supporters, festooned with ribbons and bunting.  From the loudspeakers, John Phillip Souza’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” booms loudly.

As North ascends the podium, the rally begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, led by a local minister.  During the prayer, he adds, “Lord – let this campaign be judged by the facts, and not by the liberal media …”  I notice that, as a member of the news media, nobody seems to be trying to get my vote this election.  

In fact, right now, in this place, I’m probably just about the bottom man on the totem pole in the whole crowd.  Being a reporter for a weekly newspaper, like the Westmoreland News, will get you about zero clout points with the other reporters.  Being 

a reporter at all gets me about zero love points from everyone else besides the reporters and North’s press representatives.  And being 21 years old gets me about negative five credibility points with anybody – you’re less a cub reporter to them than a Cub Scout.

The rally continues with typical patriotic rally style.  A retired Marine general is introduced, who speaks very favorably of North’s military reputation and his abilities.  North makes a speech – quite understandably – almost exactly like the last one he gave.  

I ask a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch how he handles listening to the same speeches all day.  He shrugs.  He asks me if I’m getting off the tour here, and I say yes.  “You won’t miss a thing,” he says.  Behind us, a woman drives by the rally, scowls at the assembled throng, and waves a downturned thumb.

Dan McLagan tells me that I can climb up onto the roof of Asphalt One to get a picture if I like.  I thank him and climb up, until a minute later a hefty man with a few wisps of hair in front sidles over and barks, “Get down from there!”  I bleat out, like a caught third grader, “But somebody said I could just …”  “I don’t care who said what,” he says.  “It’s dangerous.  Get down from there.”  I step down the ladder and secretly wish that I slip and break my neck and boy will he be sorry.

North’s speech finishes, and he spends probably half an hour milling through the crowd, shaking hands, smiling, and answering questions.  He talks on camera with a reporter from a Fredericksburg cable station.  The supporters slowly begin to drift away.  And then North hops back into the bus, and waves at the last 30 or so supporters.  

The Winnebago backs out slowly onto the road, and Candidate North waves again.  Then Asphalt One slips away and on to the rest of its day, which is only beginning.  I’ve only been on the campaign trail three hours, and I’m exhausted.  Oliver L. North has come and gone.  It’s 10:35 a.m., and I need a cigarette badly.

Not Just a Walk In the Park

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 18 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

“Westmoreland State Park is a great place to run,” they told me.  “Write up a story about it.”  “But I don’t like running,” I said.  “But it’s a great place,” they said, “You’ll love it.”  That was a couple of days ago.

Right now it’s one of the hottest days I can remember and I’m tired and I haven’t even been running for ten minutes.  A little over a mile, and the sticky heat of the day is drawing the energy out of me like a wall of tiny sponges barring my path.  I pass through the imposing woods along a trail in Westmoreland State Park, and I begin to remember all those reasons why I don’t go running very often anymore.

My friends and I who ran varsity cross-country in high school came to the conclusion after many grueling practice runs that the “runner’s high” is actually just a “bad trip.”  But I keep running.

Last year, 116,000 people came to Westmoreland State Park.  They jogged and they walked and they camped and they swam among other things in its primarily wooden 1300 acres.  They walked on the several scenic trails and saw the cliffs.  They came from hundreds of miles around to rest in the shade and see some of the park’s raccoons, deer, wild turkeys, or even the occasional bald eagle.

They rented a boat or swam and played in the Potomac River, or in the lifeguarded swimming pool that is open during the park’s busiest season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  They stayed in some of the park’s 30 cabins – some of which were built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps over fifty years ago – or in one of the park’s 118 campsites.  And, judging by the way that this year’s attendance figures are ahead of last year’s pace, many of those 116,000 had a good time and came back.

There are six miles of scenic trails in Westmoreland State Park.  This seems odd because the hill I’ve been running up on Turkey Neck trail seems about fifteen miles long by itself.  Actually, it seems about fifteen miles high, since it’s all vertical anyway.

Sometimes when you’re running, it’s a wonderful relaxant because all you have time to do when you run is think and sweat.  Right now, working my way up the hill, I’m devoting almost all of my time to the latter.  I watch a rabbit pass me, moving up the hill through the leaves that cover the base of the woods.  It’s beautiful, I think, and then I go back to sweating full-time as I near the crest of the hill.

Willie E. Bowen is the Park Manager.  You can generally find him in his office, where he’ll answer your questions with a no-nonsense style.  Bowen treats the job with the earnestness of a man who has spent most of his life in the Park Service, but flashes of personality show when he talks about the park.

Does Westmoreland State Park have a personality?  “Yes,” he says, “I’d like to think it does.”  Bowen calculates that the park’s unique personality is a combination of its sense of preserved nature and the people who flow daily in and out of the park, bringing to the park an endless stream of new experiences, and new friends.  I figure they also bring new cans of mosquito repellent.  

Bowen tells me more as we drive on a tour of the park.  Bowen is administrative chief of the park’s five full-time and 26 seasonal employees.  He lives in a charming-loking house on the park’s property, often visited by over-friendly deer, and not far from where the Park Ranger lives, and his morning commute to the administrative office of the park is about five hundred yards of road through shady woods.  He doesn’t usually have problems with rush hour traffic, either.  Driving along with him through the park, it doesn’t seem like too bad a job at all.

Is there a best part to the job?  Bowen thinks for a moment and decides that it is getting to meet the people who come to the park every week.  Conversely, the worst part of the job is the slow winter months when – although the park is open – it sits in a lonely, quiet white winter sleep.

Winter.  What I wouldn’t give for winter right now.  I’m gliding down one of the park trails, sidestepping roots that encroach on the path’s edges, and imagining how great it would feel to get caught in a sudden snowstorm.  Of course, in a few months I’ll be complaining about how desperate I am for summer heat, but running is no time for foresight.  

In fact, if you did have foresight, you probably wouldn’t be running because you’d realize that you ended the trail at exactly the same place as you started.  Not only did all of this running not actually get you anywhere, you spent a good part of the time that you ran being irritable and making statements calling into question the legitimate ancestry of your local weather forecaster, the persons who built the trail, the persons who built your running shoes, and indeed the entire National Park Service.

Bud Altman is an employee of the park who provides a fairly new service – he is a camping coordinator.  He lives in one of the camping areas with his wife and serves as sort of a general guide and ombudsman for the camping community.  He says that he is thoroughly impressed by how clean and self-sufficient the campers are.  “Most of them,” Altman says, “leave their spots as clean – or cleaner – than they found them.”  Are the campers ever unruly?  Altman claims to have heard an astonishing two crackles of fireworks in the park over the Fourth of July weekend.  This campground certainly isn’t the Woodstock festival.

Altman says that plenty of large groups come camping at the park – that week, there was a large contingent from L.O.W. – an organization of widows and widowers.  “If they start dating each other, or if they get married,” Altman recounts what he was told of the group’s rules, “they’re out of there.”

Bowen notes that the demand for the cabins in the summer is great – he recommends making reservations several months in advance, especially if you want a cabin during July.  The cabins are fairly well furnished, and are affordable at about $300 per week, with the rental periods available ranging from a weekend to a fortnight.  Demand is always highest for the cabins that overllok the spectacular cliffs.

Altman says that there aren’t many complaints or problems with the park’s many campers, because they tend to be very self-sufficient people.  “In general,” Bowen adds, “campers aren’t complainers.”  The most grievous problems reported by cabin dwellers tend to be busted lightbulbs or air conditioning problems.

I don’t have much farther to go on my run.  After about another mile, I will collapse back in the seat of my car, turn the air-conditioner on “sub-arctic,” and shotgun half a case of Mountain Dew.  After you have been running in hot weather for a while, you cease to think about where you are or what you’re doing, and you just begin thinking about where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing after you finish being where you are and doing what you’re doing now.

So I’m plodding along and I hear a bird chirp loudly and I grind to a halt.  And I look around me and I’m in the middle of a beautiful wood, and it seems like the forest has accepted me silently as just another tiny flywheel in the intricate machine that a forest is.  The other panting beasts – and I don’t feel so bad, because I figure that raccoon fur can’t be too comfortable in this weather – in the forest quietly go their ways and leave me to go on mine.  As I slowly pick up speed and begin to run again, I feel that – for a moment – I realize why this place is special and why running through the woods is all worthwhile.  Then I go back to thinking of the end of the trail and the Dairy Freeze not too far away.

Down at the beach, the pool is busy and the beach is jammed with picnickers and players in the surf.  Indeed, so many people seem to be laughing carelessly and enjoying themselves that the cynic in you expects to see a shark fin on the horizon at any moment.  But the people play on, and the families charge the picnicking tables and retreat to the water later to cool off.  The lifeguards sit like bronze statues consecrated to the Greek sun god Ray-Ban in their chairs by the pool.  On the far side of the beaches, the sharp cliffs can be seen.

Everyone I speak to repeats the same reason they are here: “The kids wanted to come.”  “The kids wanted to swim.”  “We figured we’d take the kids somewhere to get away from the heat.”  “The kids insisted.”   I half expected to hear someone claim that their kids had kidnapped them and driven the car themselves to come to the park.  But I somehow suspect that the adults there weren’t too averse to the trip.

Terry Sanford wears a friendly smile at the contact station that straddles the road entrance to and exit from Westmoreland State Park.  She says that some people come down the winding road into the park, find out that they have to pay an admission fee – one dollar during the week, and a dollar and a half during the weekends – and turn right around and drive away.  Others drive in to ask directions, often to Lee’s Birthplace or Washington’s.  Some even drive in an ask where the monuments are, expecting that they are at one of the birthplace memorials.

But most of the people who pass through the gates enter and leave the place they wanted to be.  And, judging by the many happy returns to the park, they fell in love with it again.

Fireworks and Circuses: Diary of a Roman Holiday in Washington

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, July 9 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

July 3: A Descent into the Maelstrom My friends and I arrived in Washington about 11 p.m. after three wrong turns, two heated arguments about which direction “North” was, and the Chain Bridge into D.C. being closed after a tree fell on it.  

As a journalist, my obligation was to do what I could to talk to the residents of Washington, to experience the mood and the messages of the masses on the brink of the holiday.  With this firmly in mind, we went to spend the night at my friend’s house in the southwest of the city. My friend attends American University and lives in a large house with several of his Delta Chi fraternity brothers.   

Unbeknownst to us, he and his friends were holding their annual “The Fourth and a Fifth” party and the house was packed to the walls.  Since I had brought along some bourbon – and that is one of the first things you learn in journalism school – we blended in and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to “talk firsthand with plenty of Washington D.C. ‘Generation X’ representatives.”  

Being a “Generation X” representative myself, I can say with fairly absolute certainty that the idea “Generation X” is actually pretty insulting and a wildly inaccurate generic label for twentysomethings.  However, editors seem to love it – and it sounds better than “I interviewed my drunk friends” – so it seemed like a good idea to investigate.  Besides, I owed my friend some bourbon to make up for the last time I came to visit and drank all his vodka and destroyed his computer’s dot-matrix printer.

Looking back on my notes, it didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped: most people didn’t have a whole lot pithy to say besides “Whoooooo!” or “Where’s the bathroom?” and even if anybody had said anything witty and revealing, I certainly wouldn’t have remembered it.  

The best information we could glean was that everybody and their grandmother planned to spend tomorrow on the Mall.  The whole city was gearing up for the celebrations that would climax with the fireworks display in front of the Washington Monument.

July 4: Heart of the Matter We all got up bright and early at the crack of 11 a.m.  I chugged a couple of cans of Mountain Dew (or “starter fluid” as I call it) and my companions and I prepared to check into our hotel room early to watch the U.S.-Brazil game in the World Cup soccer tournament. 

We checked into our hotel and decided to take a stroll to Georgetown for lunch.  Everywhere the city bustled with young people, carrying backpacks and cheap fireworks.  

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  This was certainly true of all the tourist-trapping vendors selling cheap polyester $3 American flag ties.  I bought one.  It was made in Korea.

Images of the Stars and Stripes were everywhere.  There was even a small American flag in the deli we stopped into for lunch, run by a Pakistani man who prominently displayed autographed pictures on his walls of all the celebrities who had had lunch there.  There were also a couple of pictures of the president in there, but it wasn’t autographed and I think he just had it there in case Mr. Clinton decided to stop by for ice cream and have a pen handy.  I would heartily recommend the turkey club in a pita pocket if I thought that I could ever find the deli again.

We walked quickly back to our hotel to escape the heat. My friends and I scientifically calculated that the temperature on the sidewalk was about three billion degrees farenheit.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but I earnestly expected the hydrogen nuclei in our bodies to start fusing together if we didn’t get back to air-conditioning.

We did return to the air-conditioned environs of our hotel, the State Plaza, just in time to meet another group of friends and settle down for the World Cup game.  Our friends had brought cheap American beer (Miller), cheap American food (McDonald’s), and now all we needed was a cheap, unearned, undeserved, unlikely American victory over Brazil to make our patriotic holiday complete.

In our small party watching the game, we had two foreign elements: Adrian , a British exchange student friend and dedicated football hooligan rooting gladly for the “colonies’ team”; and Maggie, a traitorous element of American citizenship but Brazilian descent who chose to root-root-root for not-the-home team.  

We all became excited as the game progressed and the Americans did not get immediately slaughtered (as had been predicted) by the best team in the world.  The tension mounted, and Adrian – being used, I supposed, to doing civilized British things during soccer games like destroying stadiums and throwing rocks at bobbies – was the most ecstatic and vehement fan of us all.

In fact, Adrian was wildly cheering for the U.S. team with the enthusiasm of a soccer connossieur, while the most spirited thing I could manage to say while watching America’s soccer team players was “Get a haircut, slick.”  

The game continued and the U.S. still hadn’t been eaten alive yet – this was exciting.  The Americans missed an early scoring opportunity, and then Brazilian shot after shot ended as a near miss.  Slowly a great realization dawned upon us: nothing really ever happens in World Cup soccer.  It’s great to play but duller than a barn-raising to watch.

Surprisingly, only two tense moments arose during the game-watching party on this most patriotic of days.  

First was the inevitable debate of nomenclature with Adrian (“It’s football.”  “It’s soccer.”  “I’m telling you it’s football.”  “I’m telling you that the Cowboys play football and this sure as hell ain’t it.”  “It’s football!”  “It’s soccer!” and so on).  

Second came the moment when the Brazilians scored then one and only goal of the game, well into the second half, and Maggie let loose with some Brazilian fervor.  I stood up, leveled a nasty gaze at her, and muttered, “Leave the room.”  A few minutes later we all settled down, but only after heated charges that America was an Imperialist jerk and a retort that Brazil’s greatest contribution to world history was Brazil Nuts.

Brazil went on to win the game and the party was adjourned to forage for food.  Eventually we joined up again and began our walk to the Mall.

The Mall in Washington is enormous – a stretch of grass with the Lincoln Memorial at one end, next the Reflecting Pool and the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument in the middle, flanked by the Smithsonian Institute’s buildings and a carousel, with the Capitol building at the far end.  And the stream of people towards the area was amazing.  

Thousands upon thousands of people drifted away from the other events of the day – the Independence Day parites, the various parades, a noticeable contingent from the Great Smoke-Out marijuna legalization demonstration – and towards the mall to see the fireworks that were to be launched from in front of the monolithic Washington Monument.

It seemed like the whole country had gathered for the celebration.  The whole Mall was covered with people on the grass and even up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; we crammed into a tiny spot near the reflecting pool and spread our blankets.  The tent of a group who had camped out on the lawn to preserved their spot stood nearby; they took it down before the fireworks began, to avoid blocking the view of the other spectators.

There was a man juggling flaming sticks in the Reflecting Pool, and another who waded through and towed behind him a motorized shark fin.  We kicked back and shared a cigar with a State Department official who sat with his family, just in front of us.

The fireworks were set to begin at 9:15, and were expected to be tremendous: the show was to include over 3,000 individual shells, with 1,100 reserved for the finale.  As the sky lit up, we were not disappointed.

The crowd oohed and aahed as the night air exploded in white and blue and red in a thousand different patterns and designs.  Each firework was followed by the sharp crack of its explosion, a half second later.  Several times the crowd bellowed cheers as high firework bursts rained down a multitude of gleaming tiny shells that trailed sparks like shooting stars.  It was like an aerial war fought by armies of dueling painters.

The blazing finish came and went, the assembles masses roared and clapped while about a thousand “early-birds” snuck off into the Metro station at once to try to beat the rush.

The crowd began to filter away, and police helicopters with searchlights scanned the crowd.  Radios in the crowd played everything from Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” to Lynrd Skynrd’s “Freebird.”  We stopped for a moment in the Lincoln Memorial to look out over the scene, and then wandered back to our hotel.

After seeing some news coverage of the fireworks and a rather lewd game of charades, we walked to a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant for some midnight snacks.  I won the “Draw on the back of your placemat what America means to you” competition that the restaurant was holding that day.  My entry had a relatively neatly-drawn (you try filling in all those stars with crayons) American flag, and the words, “A bold experiment.  Some successes.  Some failures.  But we’re still the best house on the block.  What can we say?  We’ve got Elvis on our side.”

I won a T.G.I. Friday’s button and a balloon which I proceeded to suck all the helium out of and talk like a chipmunk.  Then we went back to the hotel and to bed. 

July 5: There and Back Again We awoke from our Independence Day festivities just in time to avoid a grumpy cleaning lady.  The headline of the Washington Post read, “Respect for American soccer: born on the Fourth of July.”  

We took with us some dazzling memories and I took with me the Gideon’s Bible from the hotel room, an act which my friends assured me would lead to my going straight to hell.  I assured them in turn that, judging from the rest of my life, this act simply assured that I would get a front-row seat when I got there.

We bade goodbye to Adrian, as he prepared to catch a plane home to Heathrow Airport the next day.  And we bade goodbye to our nation’s capital, feeling that we really had found a nicely rounded example of America at large.  I was proud that I had shared our national birthday with the rest of Washington, and proud also I had bought a really cool flag tie for only three dollars.  

It had been a fine holiday, and we would have driven off into the sunset with a flag draped over the car, if it hadn’t been the middle of the afternoon, when sunsets are hard to come by.

Golfing In Westmoreland County

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, June 29 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

Katie Massa Plays Golf, 1994
Katie Massa takes a swing at golf

They say that you never learn to curse until you learn to drive.  For those under the minimum 16-year age, I recommend golf.

Golf is a sport for lazy people and a passion for dedicated people and a nuisance for uncoordinated people and a test of creative cussing for most of us and it’s actually really a lot of fun if you don’t mind how badly you’re doing at it.  At least it is at Cameron Hills Golf Links, in King George.

My friend Katie is a wonderful person – sterling character, nice legs and so forth – but she’s a horrible golf partner.  For one thing – and I’m not making this up – she almost killed us in a golf cart.

Jeffrey Carl Plays Golf, 1994
Jeff lines up for an approach shot

The green of the 18th hole is down beyond an relatively enormous steep hill, and as we wearily rode towards it, our old pal “gravity” started displaying its warped sense of humor, and we began to pick up speed.  

Katie, who was behind the wheel, seemed rather puzzled at how to remedy this, as the only pedal she had used on the cart thus far was the gas.  I thought it over and suggested one contingency politely by screaming “BRAKE!  BRAKE! BRAKE!” at the top of my lungs.  

By this time we were picking up speed and hurling towards our deaths – and believe-you-me, no matter who you are, if you die in a golf cart accident they send you straight to Hell just for being stupid.  Katie slammed on the parking brake, and let me just tell you that if you’ve never laid rubber in a souped-up golf cart, man oh man are you missing something.

Katie Massa Drives the Golf Cart, 1994
Katie Massa Lays On the Horn

But I digress.  The problem with Katie’s golf game was that she was actually attempting to dig for buried treasure or oil or truffles – the theory being, I suppose that if you make enough divots you’re bound to find something.

However, it would be unfair for me to posit myself as having played an entirely superior game of golf that afternoon either. 

Through a mistake at the clubhouse, however, I was given small dimpled wood-seeking missiles.  I suppose that it was the military’s day to test new secret weapons at the  course because some of them were also the rumored F-124 Stealth Golf Balls, which disappear from all known methods of detection as soon as you hit them.  

These charmingly innocuous-looking little demonic terrors managed to veer off into the woods or a stream – and certainly not because I hit them there, thank you very much – and hide themselves in whatever seemed handy.  

I would occasionally wander into the woods looking for a ball and discover some long-extinct species of killer mosquito with a handicap much lower than mine or, if I ventured deep enough into the woods, be asked by a polite dinosaur or lost company from the 13th Massachussets Zouaves if I knew the way back to the fairway.

Baseball Cards Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, June 20 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

Did you ever collect cards?  For many people, the thought of cards brings to mind afternoons after school, old sports heroes, and those horrible slabs of pink gum that tasted like masking tape that came in each pack of Topps baseball cards.  The packs came with 10 or 12 dull-finished cardboard cards wrapped in wax paper with some stale gum and maybe a sticker of the San Diego Chicken if you were lucky, all for the princely sum of 35 cents.  You wrapped them up in rubber bands, occasionally used them as collateral for loans of video-game tokens and didn’t really give them a whole lot of thought. 

Well, cards are a whole different world now.  Baseball cards sit alongside NASCAR, Star Trek, Batman, and Looney Toons cards.  There are oversized cards and gold cards and cards with holograms on them that come in silver foil-lined packs for $2.50 a pop.  There are cards of mass murderers and suspects in the John F. Kennedy asassination, and there are cards of the Beatles and the Pro Bowlers’ Hall of Fame. And – alas – they don’t come with stale gum anymore. 

You can see what trading cards have blossomed into at Mike Parham’s Collector’s Attic store in Oak Grove, on Route 3.  The small shop is packed with cards, from $1.50 packs of cards that move in and out of the store at a rate of 350 per week, to older, rare cards like a Mickey Mantle card from 1962 that sells for $475.  There are cards and miniature NASCAR models, collecting supplies and comic books, and even a life-sized cut-out promotional display of supermodel/awfulactress Kathy Ireland.

Mike Parham has a down-to-earth reason for why he opened the store: “I was tired of the ride to Fredericksburg after work on Fridays to buy cards,” he says.  Parham only began collecting cards approximately two years ago, and it developed into a passion and then a part-time profession, when he isn’t selling life insurance.

Parham loves collecting the cards as well as selling them, but he’s not too sentimental about his collection – “As far as I’m concerned, everything here is for sale,” he says.  His favorites are basketball cards and his store is primarily devoted to sports cards, but there is no clear winner in terms of which sell the most.  “The popular cards change with the season,” he says.

Right now he is busy collecting a rare sub-set of this year’s Upper Deck basketball cards that come in the packs available now – you can buy a pack for a couple of dollars that might – if you’re lucky – contain a rare superstar card worth a couple hundred dollars.  And then you might get pack after pack of the New Jersey Nets’ towel boys and hot dog vendors.  It’s a gamble as an investment, but to the collectors, the joy of collecting is worth the price alone.

Trading cards have been around since at least the 1890s, originally collector’s cards printed by cigar companies.  Perhaps the most famous trading card of all time is a card of Hall-of-Fame baseballer Honus Wagner from 1906.  Wagner did not approve of tobacco, and he ordered the company to stop producing the cards.  Only a few were made, and today their value exceeds $50,000.  

Indeed, trading cards have been a part of American childhood for generations.  As a zany youngster in a small town in Washington State, I was one of the Baseball Card Lords of Fourth Grade.  I competed with several rival card kingpins, who lived in another housing development, for control over the card-trading rights to our hapless fellow students – which was pretty much the fourth grade equivalent of the U.S. and Soviet Union competing for client states.

The other great Baseball Card Lords once made a fatal mistake and allowed me to buy a coveted Mike Schmidt card from a card store before they could get to it.  This was pretty much the fourth grade equivalent of my parents having gotten me a nuclear weapon for Christmas.  

It was time for me to make my move to establish supremacy, and events conspired in my favor.  My parents decided to take a one-week vacation – the only one they ever took, in fact, which probably had a lot to do with their being too frightened to leave me alone in the house again.  

As soon as my grandparents arrived to take care of my younger brother and me, my parents left and I set to work converting my father’s den into a den of iniquity and rabid card-trading.  Cardboard changed hands in sheet and waves as my grandparents were impressed into service bringing Kool-Aid to my guests and working as bicycle-parking valets whilst I cut deals the likes of which had never been seen before, at least in our neighborhood.  People often speak of ruthless businessmen as “willing to sell their own grandmother.”  I was almost willing to trade her for a Topps ‘73 Tom Seaver and a Fleer ‘61 Ted Williams Commemorative Series card.  

When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, I had swindled and savvied my way to become “Mr. Baseball Cards” of Ellsworth Elementary’s fouth-grade class.  My grandparents, on the other hand, were much the worse for wear; as was my father’s den, which had suffered a week of rapid-fire card hustling and Atari-playing; and my little brother, whom some of my friends had taken out and used as a goalpost for soccer.  But for a few years, baseball cards were a tremendous part of my life and my friends’ lives – just as important as soccer and video games, in fact.  But not quite as important as watching “Star Blazers” after school.

Eventually, though, I found myself spending less and less time chasing after rare baseball cards that I couldn’t find and spending more and more time chasing after cute girls who wouldn’t go out with me.  Somewhere in my parents’ old house there probably lies a secret cache of cards that would probably be worth several thousand dollars today, had it not been for the fact that I – just like everybody else I knew – kept my cards wrapped together with rubber bands, which squeezes in the middle and devalues the cards.  Easy come, easy go, I guess.

Industry analysts say that the trading card business has hit its peak and is now in a relative decline.  Saturation of the market with too many kinds of cards and overpricing has drained even the biggest allowances.  

In the late 1970s, the trading card market was fairly compact and was dominated by one company, Topps Chewing Gum.  They produced baseball, football, and basketball cards, and were distributed in dime stores, convenience stores, and Little League clubhouses all around the U.S. and in Canada by its branch there, O-Pee-Chee.  

But in the early 1980s, cards took a step up when two other large producers of cards, Fleer and Donruss, entered the game.  The increased competition took mainstream trading cards into new areas: hockey, soccer, Olympics cards in 1984, movie cards, and special sets for the “more serious” collectors.  The promise of “special” cards that were rarer and consequently more valuable led collectors to buy more cards, and the manufacturers gladly complied.

The trend continued, and in the past five years, the card business has become bigger business than it had ever been before.  More people with more money to spend came to collect cards, and the cards became more diverse, more impressive, and more expensive.  There are numerous major manufacturers, and new card sets come out almost weekly.  It remains to be seen whether the expansion of the card industry, closely paralleling the fast-growing comic-book industry, has choked itself out.

But all of this big-business concern doesn’t bother Parham or his customers at the shop.  For collectors, trading cards are a labor of love.  Over the weekend, Parham is on his way to a giant trading card show in Wilmington, N.C., to sell some of his cards, buy new ones, and trade others.  

Parham plans to continue with his moonlighting in the card business.  “I try to get all satisfied customers,” he says.  “People seem to like it, and they keep coming back.”  He says that he may begin carrying more comic books next year, or expand with a bigger collection for sale.  Who can say what’s in the cards for Mike Parham and Collector’s Attic?     

A Visit To Stratford Hall Plantation

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, June 13 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

The dead still walk the earth in Westmoreland County.

Giants stood on this ground before and their spirits still haunt the land.  And the largest spectre of all radiates from Stratford Hall Plantation.

Stratford was the home of the Lee family.  Built in the late 1730s by Thomas Lee, a prominent planter, the plantation was home to Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence.  For twenty years it was home to “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the dashing cavalry general of the Revolutionary War.  Born in the large bedroom on the upper floor of the Great House of the plantation was Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States of America.  And it is this General Lee’s undeniable presence which hangs over the plantation, as it does over much of the South.

Stratford Hall Plantation exists today as not only a monument but as a farm on 1600 of its original acres; corn, wheat, and barley are ground in the wheel of the plantation’s mill and sold at the Stratford Store; there is a Stratford Hall Cabernet Sauvignon wine also sold there.  There is a restaurant that serves lunch, and the Stratford, Va. Post Office and the Stratford Store are tucked between the visitor’s center and the Great House and the small garden.  Children play with goats and chickens that poke their heads out of a pen near the servants’ and workers’ quarters.

The gift shop at the plantation – the Stratford Store – is a little piece of everything that is the heritage and the present of the old South.  There are coffee mugs with ragged Rebel soldiers and children’s books on Martin Luther King, jr.  There are numerous biographies of all the Lees, one called “The Lee Girls,” and there are Civil War coloring books and word puzzles.  There are homestyle cookbooks and low-fat cookbooks.  There are U.S. or Confederate flags. There is china and there are belt buckles.  There are countless portraits of General R. E. Lee – casting him as anything from the stern, frowning Marble Saint to a smiling, friendly, bearded old man, looking much as if Santa Claus had lost weight and joined the army at Manassas.  There is cider and Apple Chutney, there are videotapes and wooden postcards.  If you have a Friend of Stratford card (non-transferable), you get a ten percent discount on items there (except books and Stratford-made pastries), as well as free admission to the plantation (for one year).  

Stratford Hall Plantation is beautiful, but it is not remarkable for its trees or its fields or its view overlooking the Potomac River.  It is remarkable because of the feeling of ever-present history that hangs over the site.  And it is one presence in particular that reaches out from this plantation to cast a shadow over the old Confederacy.  Many people are fully in love with the memory of General Robert E. Lee.  Many think of him as the servant of an evil cause.  Many just wonder what all the fuss is about.

It is difficult to talk seriously about General Lee, because he is no longer a person.  For many people, he became a legendary figure, a super hero.  So many adored him that it seems that he had never actually been made of flesh and blood, but was a pure idea on horseback in a gray uniform, everything that the South had been or imagined itself to be.

When the South lost the Civil War, it lost everything.  It endured a painful reconstruction and never again held as great political or economic influence as it had before it gave up its position in the Union.  The South needed something to keep the last embers of its old spirit alive.  It needed a hero.  And it chose General Robert Edward Lee, C.S.A.

It seems that everyone knows bits and pieces of the Lee legend.  He graduated at the top of his class at West Point.  He thought of secession from the Union as the worst catastrophe that could befall the South.  He was a hero in the Mexican-American War, where he may have briefly, as a Captain, met a young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant.  He was asked to lead the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy, but felt honor-bound to his home soil of Virginia.  He felt a personal revulsion toward slavery.  He was a brilliant military strategist, tactician, and leader, perhaps the finest old soldier of the war on either side.  He told his generals who wished to continue guerilla warfare after the Appomattox surrender that the war was finished, and the nation must begin to heal.  He envisioned a new breed of Southern education in his years as President of Washington College, renamed Washington and Lee after his death.

Lee was also twelve feet tall, foretold the death of John F. Kennedy, and healed the sick, the blind, and the lepers.  Lee became the “Marble Man” – a character too perfect for flesh and blood, dehumanized and made into the stuff of monuments. The North has never had – perhaps it never needed – heroes like this, and certainly not superheroes like Lee.  Heroes in the North are inescapably human: they have wooden teeth; they intentionally lost baseball games; they drank too much, smoked too much, or slept with Marilyn Monroe.  Yet Lee was none of this – he was perfect.  Not necessarily a perfect man, but perfect for the role of the lionized, canonized, all-but-deified Patron Saint of the Lost Cause.  Streets, churches, schools – anything that could be named took Lee’s.  My college fraternity, the Kappa Alpha Order, was founded on Lee.  The road to Stratford bears a large sign for a Farm Bureau agent named Lee Jackson.  

And in becoming more than human, Lee lost his humanity to the following generations.  Nobody knew or really cared about what he was like as a man; they only knew that he was everything they should be.  And so, with his statues multiplying like shrines and temples, the ghost of General Lee spread over the South in the decades after the Civil War.

Of course, Robert E. Lee is not the only Lee of note.  The Lees of Virginia held great influence in their time.  When Virginia was foremost among the states of the Union, the Lees were among the foremost families in Virginia.  Richard Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, R. E. Lee’s father, was one of George Washington’s favorites in the high command of the Army of the Continental Congress.  A rebellious lot, it would seem, these General Lees.  “Light Horse Harry” later went on to become Governor of Virginia after Thomas Jefferson, but ended up in debtor’s prison.  Most reports indicate that the younger General Lee never visited his father’s grave in Georgia.

But it all seems to come back to one man, known as “R. E. Lee” to reverent historians, “Ole Mas’ Rob’t” in song, “Saint Bob” jokingly to others, but just “General Lee” to most.  But does anyone really know what Lee was like as a human being?

It would seem, after extensive research, numerous biographies, waves of revisionist history, and thorough debate, that the fabled General Lee was actually – a pretty nice guy.  

Lee was a devoted family man, quick-witted and possessed of a dry but not particularly sarcastic sense of humor, gentlemanly to a fault, politically aware but not notably ambitious, amicable, inspiring, down-to-earth, responsible, and levelheaded.  

Praise for Lee is not unanimous by any means.  Although R. E. Lee had always treated the Lee family slaves kindly, he was not an avowed abolitionist.  He was brilliant militarily, but was a general of a bygone era: his orders for the Napoleonic-style Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg probably cost the South the largest battle of the war.  And when Union General Sherman inaugurated his plan of “Total War” in his march through Georgia, Lee couldn’t conceive of fighting that way. Some charge Lee with guilt by association with the racism and closed-mindedness of the Civil War-era South.  The act of congress restoring Lee to American citizenship hangs in the Stratford Hall Visitor Center – passed only as recently as 1975, retroactive to June 1865.

But what is important about Lee is not his shortcomings or disappointments.  Super heroes don’t have human shortcomings.  The presence of General Lee that hangs over Stratford Hall Plantation is not the ghost of the man Robert Edward Lee; it is the Ghost of the Last Hope of the Lost Cause, General Lee.  And everything that was fallible and human about Lee disappeared when he became what the South needed – a great man to call their own.  The plantation is haunted by the idea of Lee, by the ideas of all the famous Lees.

Perhaps, then, the best thing we can do when we visit Stratford Hall Plantation – as anyone seriously interested in history or architecture or even just looking for a fun way to spend a quaint afternoon should – is to discard the image of the Marble Man who stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond and whose visage wallpapers the Stratford Store.  And then we can imagine a  handsome young man in a pressed West Point Cadet uniform or a boy playing in the fields or swimming.  Perhaps we can imagine R. E. Lee – or the rest of the Lee family – as just people, as real and as human as you or me.  No one knows if the Marble Man will remain the symbol of the fading elements of the old South.  But we can imagine Robert E. Lee as a human being, living on the Stratford Hall Plantation, and being someone we’d very much like to meet.

Happy Days Restaurant In Colonial Beach

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, June 5 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

The handwriting on the letter is like a child’s.  Written in blue ink on lined notebook paper, double spaced, it reads like a letter home to parents from a summer camp about what a wonderful place they are at.  The letter is polite and hopeful of a response, because they have a story to tell about someone they know who has great things in mind.

The letter is to the Westmoreland News, from Tom Krohn, an employee at the Happy Days restaurant in Colonial Beach.  It says that Giny Trosclair, the owner – with her husband, Rudy – of Happy Days, is “a real dreamer, always coming up with new and better ideals … Like your story said, ‘Write about someone good.’  I would write about her.  I really admire her.”

Tom Krohn is in middle age, with a wizened but kind face.  When I call up Happy Days to ask about taking pictures, a young voice at the other end of the line says, “They want to talk to Tom Krohn!” with more than a little shock.  I don’t know if many people take Mr. Krohn seriously.  But what he said about Happy Days being a fun place with a dream is very true, and shows a special wisdom.

Walking into Happy Days, the first thing I heard was the Beach Boys’ “Be True to your School,” one of those songs that is so shiny and happy and cheesy that you have to like it.  

It says a lot about the atmosphere at Happy Days, decorated with as many relics of the 1950s as the owners could find in their extensive search for a “Fifties feel.”  Happy Days is divided into two sections, a sit-in restaurant with entertainment and a bar, and a carry-out service and bakery.  There is soft-serve ice cream and yogurt, videos playing, karaoke sing-alongs, dancing and live music at nights.  “A little something for everybody,” Trosclair says.

The bakery has opened up only recently, and features some surprising chefs.  Al and Billy Young, owners of the original bakery in Colonial Beach, have returned to bake for Happy Days.  “We were trying to recapture the way it was,” says Giny Trosclair.  The bakery offers everything from donuts to fresh rolls to making all of the bread used in the restaurant.  “There shouldn’t be anything we don’t have,” she adds.

Trosclair says that the 1950s decor is done to create a friendly atmosphere.  “It’s always been a dream of mine, a family-oriented place,” she says.  Pictures of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis Presley – the 1950s’ most obviously recognizable icons – adorn the walls, conjuring up images of a restaurant stolen from the set of a high-school production of “Grease.”

The pizza is quite good, although the loaf of “French Bread” tasted more like “buttermilk biscuits.”  Maybe it’s supposed to taste like French buttermilk biscuits.

Happy Days is also adding smokehouse barbecqued items and catering to its wide menu.  The pictures on the restaurant walls are being taken down and framed, and Trosclair says she hopes to eventually put a 1950s automobile on the roof of the building.  “There’s a lot we still have to do,” she says.  And it is obvious that Happy Days is a place on the move, never at rest.  “We try to have fun … we try to please everybody,” Trosclair says.

It’s Saturday night, and the band “Wild at Heart” is playing at Happy Days.  It’s mainly Top 40 country, and the music is fine, but not as loud as the singer’s shirt.  “They’re great,” Giny Trosclair says of them, “they’re going to be bigger than Alabama.  We’re really lucky to have them booked until New Year’s.”  The band is talented, and people slowly begin to get up to dance.  At first, it’s two women, doing part of a country line dance that looks like some sort of Malaysian witch-doctor’s ceremony.  Then a couple gets up and cuts a rug, and finally more and more people decide to bounce and sway to the music.  I leave after a while thinking that Tom Krohn really has found a story of something good to write about for a change – something very good.

Passing Thoughts On Death Row

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, May 30 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

Dennis W. Stockton writes a newsletter.  It comes out about every month, give or take.  It is called “Passin’ Thoughts.”  Dennis writes about whatever comes to mind or happens in his life, like a public diary.  He has written about everything from killing ants to running for governor of Virginia to replacing Rush Limbaugh to the history and usage of toilet paper.  Dennis writes on a Panasonic typewriter, sitting alone in his room.  Actually, it’s a cell. Dennis W. Stockton is on Death Row. 

The masthead of “Passin’ Thoughts” bears a parody of the New York Times’s motto, reading “All the news fit to print … and some that ain’t.”  It says, “COMPILED FROM DEATH ROW!” in all-capital letters and is copyrighted to “Dennis Walden Stockton, #134466, Powhatan Correctional Center, State Farm, Virginia 23160.”  Interspersed between stories there are quotations from sources like John Steinbeck, Leon Uris, the New Testament, and, of course, Dennis Stockton. 

“Whether an O. Henry writing his short stories from a jail cell or a frightened young inmate writing his family, a prisoner needs a medium for self-expression.”

– former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, as quoted in “Passing Thoughts”

Dennis Stockton’s newsletter is often quite funny.  Stockton and his occasional guest writers take on numerous subjects – it’s something of a writer’s dream, all that space to write and nobody to tell you what to write about.  His humor is a gift-wrapped box, and inside the box holds bitterness, frustration, and madness.  Stockton staunchly maintains that he is innocent, and occasionally invokes Christ to give him the strength to withstand his unfair imprisonment.  The status of his court appeals is kept track of in special updates in “Passin’ Thoughts,” in between stories about his experiences and his plans.

“If you elect me as your governor I’ll put a stop to all this fraud and waste …  I know how to cut the cost of operating prisions in half and will do it as soon as I move in the governor’s mansion … I know you’ve heard them other candidates say over the years how it cost $25,000 per inmate to keep people in prisons … I’ll turn all the prisoners loose and pay them $12,500 a year to stay out of jail.  Just like that I’ve cut prison budgets in half.  If any double-cross me and commit a crime I’ll shoot those and get them out of their and our misery…”

– Dennis Stockton, “Passin’ Thoughts”

This is strangely, ironically funny, coming from a man waiting to be killed by the state.  And sometimes you’re never quite sure what to take seriously and what to recognize as a joke.  All these topics, the ambitious (like Stockton’s gubernatorial candidacy plans) and the mundane (congratulating Dale Earnhardt on his NASCAR Winston Cup win) are handled in Stockton’s fascinating writing style.  Stockton takes the quirks of slang speech – the “hafta”s and the “it ‘uz”s – and puts them in print, just like they sound.  It makes engaging and easy reading, and makes you feel like Stockton is sitting there beside you – behind an iron wall of bars – and talking to you.

“I use to be one of those that used handkerchiefs for nose-blowin’.  Like many, I had a habit of blowin’ my nose into a handkerchief and foldin’ it up carefully and then shovin’ it into my back pocket and walkin’ around with a pocket full of sneeze.  That was before I learned handkerchiefs were suppose to be kept clean so’s you’d have one handy when you ran into a beautiful lady in tears and could diplomatically pull it out and offer it to the distressed one so she could dry her tears and blow her purty little nose in it.  Then, if she returned the handkerchief, you could walk around with a pocket full or her carefully wrapped sneeze, but prob’ly wouldn’t mind for by then you’ve done got a date with the purty little thing you were such a comfort to.”

– Dennis Stockton, “Passin’ Thoughts”

The stream-of-consciousness writing of the newsletter is also broken up by photocopies of letters written by Stockton to the prison warden, complaining that his television has not been returned since it was broken by guards in the last “lockdown for a shakedown” or decrying the infrequent showers allowed to the men on his cell block.  It’s a little like reading the mutant offspring of Andy Rooney’s columns and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”: the funny stories about life are contrasted with an obsession with the tiniest elements of life: the television set, the toilet paper, the shower, the bugs on the wall.  There is not much to do on Death Row.  And Stockton tells you in vivid detail what it’s like to do a whole lot of not much: the tiny details of existence that are no more than annoyances to people on the “outside” are maddeningly major events to a prisoner.  Stockton talks for pages about killing the ants in his cell – he not only kills them, but counts them, and marks when he kills flies on his calendar.  Time passes slowly there, and the smallest images become important.

“The same ain’t so for ribbons.  I got 28 1/2 pages outta my last ribbon.  27 of them were double-spaced kind while the other 1 1/2 were single-spaced … like this’n.  Before startin’ this issue I put ribbon #12 in that I’ve used so far, since gettin’ this machine in late August.  They charge me $4.35 for each ribbon in the Canteen …”

– Dennis Stockton, “Passin’ Thoughts”

Postcards from the edge.  Notes from the underground.  Confessions of the condemned.  Voices from beyond.  Straight outta Compton.  Federal Express from hell.  Pick your name for these testimonials.  Here they are called, simply, “Prisoners’ Warnings.”

Stockton’s notes above, and the following letters are prisoners’ warnings to young people of the area.  The letters are accompanied by a letter from the organizers of this project.  The introductory letter says the prisoners’ warnings are “written by reformed inmates who are willing to share the hard life of prison survival,” according to Lethia A. Johnson and the Reverends C. Long and F. Brooks.

“A life where it doesn’t matter that your days are spent in a cell with only enough room to sit, stand and sleep.

“These young people are now labeled as numbers.  They have searhed their souls and are willing to share the price they had to pay for the mistakes they made.

“Their hopes and prayers are that young people would read their story andthink twice before commiting a criminal act.

“These writers are involved in community projects and are trying to find themselves in Christ, although they sometimes fail due to the lack of faith, leaderhsip and guidance.”

Lethia Johnson notes that Siloam’s pastor Reverend Long and his wife Margaret are working together with young men gathered by Keith Jones, Roger Brooks and Myron Johnson, the church’s deacons, and New Jerusalem’s Pastor.

“The theme of their first meeting, which might be considered suitable for the entire project, is You Are Your Brother’s Keeper.  I am asking the community to join in and help us preserve our next generation,” Johnson adds, and the letter ends neatly with the names of Johnson, the Rev. Long, and the Rev. Brooks.  The letter is sparsely punctuated and is typed in all-capital letters.

Joseph R. “Poncho” Brown writes that as of March 21, he was feeling “fine and very blessed, growing stronger with the Lord ever day.”  His letter is pure evangelical testimony– an account of faith and how it is often the only thing left for some when all the other things have fallen apart.  It is easy to forget sometimes that prisoners have families, too, and that time does not stand still for them while a sentence is being served.

“It’s more apparent to me now – more than ever – that my calling is to touch as many young lives as possible.  When my sons came, my youngest (nine years old) asked me why I was in here.  I don’t know just why he’s questioning me about, but Iwas very honest with him.  I will not rest until I know that their lives have bypassed the life I’ve been living for the last 12 years.  School is the key right now for them, and they enjoy it very much…”

The top of the letter is signed, “Carlton Ford #156984.”  The handwritten letters on the page are tidy, looping whorls, like Thomas Jefferson’s.  The words are crammed together on the page, like the terse writing of someone who has something to say and doesn’t know if they’ll get a chance to say it unless they can write it fast enough.  It tells a story about a life that has gone wrong, about a boy who started out “straight” but became a product of an environment where hope had packed its bags, left, and forgotten about them.  It talks about living in a world of crime that is like some incomprehensible, faraway parallel universe to some, and the deadly everyday world to others.  

“All I wanted was to do was just make my grandmother the happiest grandparent in the world.  I remember promising to her that I would never drink liquor, beer, or take drugs, but most importantly I promised to her that I would never go to jail and leave her alone.  In return, she gave me a strict curfew, rules and regulations, attention and affection, but most importantly she gave me unconditional love … I gave her good grades in school, discipline, respect, and was on my way to becoming that young man that I promised her I would be… But some thing drastically changed in me, and I didn’t even see it coming.

“In the seventh grade, I moved to live with my mother in a project unit in Alexandria.  The children my age seemed like little adults to me, and I felt as though I had nothing in common with them or the envirnment, where crime, drugs and sex seemed to be the major focus.

“I had to somehow achieving ghetto mentality.  Peer pressure is addivctivefor a mind tatdoes’t know how to us its reflectfulness or be toughtful in decison making.  I got inolved in all types of crime: stealing cars, breaking into houses became a routine type of thing for me.  All we did was shoot basketball and get high in daylight; at night, we traveled the streets looking to commit some larceny.  i dropped out of school impregnated a girl and had a few brushes with the law, but the worst was about to come.

“That night, four of us had stolen a car, and a police car started chasing us.  We hit the wall.  All of them died except for me.

“For my part, the judge sentenced me to six months in a boys’ home.  Upon my release, I immediately got back into my old scene, peddling drugs, burglaries, and anything else that would put money in my pockets.  I was ducking and dodging like that all the way to this present incarceration.

“I’ve gone down for four and one-half years on this charge, but more importantly, I have done a lot of thinking.  Never in all my life have I ever done such deep-rooted reflecting on my past and future.  Where did I go wrong?  How did I go wrong?  What happened to that little boy who wanted to grow up and make his grandmother proud?  Surely he is still within me somewhere.  I’m still going to make her happy, God rest her soul…”

What do you say about these letters and writings from reformed prisoners?  They are like sermons from fallen angels, ghostly messages on the important things in life from those who have lost their lives in the “real world.”  But, aside from repentance, what are these testimonials really about

Dennis Stockton’s writings are funny and bleak and riveting and disorienting.  But most of all – they show what life is like, waiting to die.  They show what is there waiting for you at the end of the universe: nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Nothing to do but kill flies and count them on the calendar.  Nothing to talk about but the petty torments inflicted in imprisonment.  Nothing to think about but the tiniest details of your life, or to make up grandiose stories about the world outside to live through the actions of others.  Dennis Stockton writes indirectly about what stares at you when you are sitting, waiting for the end: nothing.  And the cold stare of boredom – the empty eye-sockets of nothingness- are worse than the curse of fear, or the sting of pain, or even the icy gaze of evil.  There may be another world waiting for Dennis Stockton, but for right now there is nothing to do but wait and – to make something happen, if only in imagination – to tell stories.

“I died last night.  It was sometime after I went to bed.  I’m not sure of the exact time, and since I was dead I couldn’t open my eyes and look.  But sometime after 11 o’clock I went to bed.  My bed is in a cell for I’m (or was) a prisoner.

“… But the way it turned out is I suppose what’s in the dark recesses of everyone’s mind about what being dead is like.  There’s only one thing for a dead person to see and you don’t need eyes to see it.

“I don’t know whether to tell you I’m sad or glad that I died.  At least I’m no longer in prison for something I didn’t do …

“One of the best points of being dead is that I’m free from worry, persecution and ridicule along with all the little things that made my last 13-plus years on earth the low points.  The high points also include I know now – that God is real and that when I was baptized on 3/1/1991 He did indeed do all the things His book taught me He would. 

“I miss all (too many to count) the friends I came to know after I was baptized.  If I could say one thing only to them it’d be, ‘Stay the course and never doubt God’s promises in the least.’

“I wish I could write these lines and send them to everyone on earth, but I can’t for the dead these days can’t talk to the living.  For the fact I’ve learned since dying is that the dead, like me,  know nothing.”

– Dennis Stockton, “A Short Story” 

Russia On 6,000 Rubles (About Five Bucks) a Day

By Jeffrey Carl

The Westmoreland News, May 14 1994

Working at the Westmoreland News in 1994 was the best summer job I ever had. I worked for peanuts and had a two hour drive each way from Richmond, but I got to do it all at a small county newspaper where I was a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, layout editor and photographer (because there was nobody else to do those things). Best of all the paper’s editor, Lynn Norris, gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted – way more journalistic and comedic freedom than anyone should rightly give a know-it-all 21-year-old writing for a weekly in the deeply rural Northern Neck of Virginia.

“Russia on 6,000  Rubles (about five bucks) a Day,” or “Moscow Does Not Believe in Decent Chinese Food”

by Jeffrey Carl

Staff Writer

Having traveled to Russia last summer, I was asked to write up a brief guide for those intrepid souls who might wish to visit there themselves.  This is fine with me, because it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  The following is a listing of basic “Dos” and “Don’ts” for visiting – a condensed version of “Everything You Wanted to Know about Going to Russia but Realized You Don’t Know How to Ask the Locals.”  And if you’re as incurably American as I am, you’ll have a lot of questions.  Good luck, happy trails, and don’t forget to write if the economy over there gets work.

First Rule: Have a good time.  All of the sarcastic little attempts at humor aside, it’s a wonderful place.  The people are friendly, conversational, and generally kind.  Saint Petersburg is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, and the “White Nights” in June – when the sun never fully goes down – are gorgeous.  Moscow’s “Stalinist Gothic” architecture is breathtaking.  Leggy Russian girls stroll by that would make heads spin in any country of the world.  Georgian Champagne is excellent and cheap.  And, being an American, you know that you’re automatically the coolest person within a 50-yard radius.

Leigh Pezzicara and Kim Roberts in Red Square, 1993
Friends at St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, 1993

Second Rule: The domestic Russian beer tastes like WD-40 motor oil.  Try to avoid it if at all possible; if you’re in a major city, there will probably be plenty of nicer bars or pubs run by foreigners, set up specifically for (comparatively) money-laden travelers like yourself.  Not that alcohol can’t be bought anywhere: when I was there, Stolichnaya vodka could be bought for about 1200 Rubles (95 cents) per liter at any kiosk along the street in Moscow or St. Pete’s.  Absolut Vodka, imported from nearby Sweden, could be bought for about four bucks per liter.  And the most expensive vodka – costing eight dollars a bottle, or about half the average Russian’s monthly wage of 15,000 Rubles – was Smirnoff, which is bottled in exotic Hartford, Connecticut.  If you’re looking for Jack Daniel’s, you aren’t seeing any until you get back on the plane.

And while we’re on the topic of sin and its accomplices, American cigarettes are cheaper in Russia than they are here.  Marlboro or Lucky Strike brands – the status symbols among younger Russians – go for about 90 cents a pack.  The cheapest native Russian cancer sticks, called Byelomorkanal, cost about four cents a pack.  They are fat, stubby, and filterless, and taste like you’re smoking plutonium.  Considering that some of the tobacco probably comes from around the Chernobyl area, you probably are. 

Third Rule: Bring your own Ny-Quil. The only time I really feared for my life was when I caught a cold, and the Russian family I stayed with decided to suggest their favorite home remedies.  The mother of the family was a chemist, and the father was a physicist.  And their respective cures for congestion were warm milk and inhaling steam, and vodka. I half expected them to pull out a small reserve box of Red Army-issue leeches with multiple warheads.  So bring your own medicine, unless you happen to be particularly fond of the vodka cure.

Jeffrey Carl at the St. Petersburg Artillery Museum, 1993
The author sits atop a ZSU-23 at the Artillery Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1993

Fourth Rule: Bring your own Won Ton soup.  I went to every Chinese restaurant in Moscow and St. Petersburg (three).  It seems that even though they had both been Communist nations for a long time, the Russians and the Chinese never got along, because apparently none of the Chinese stayed around long enough to explain how to make a decent egg roll.  In my mind, an advanced civilization is marked by the availability of good Chinese food.  There may be some somewhere in Russia.  Elvis may also be working in an Iowa laundromat.  But there is very little evidence for either.

The native Russian food is actually quite good, but due to a poor availability of supplies (a national tradition), the basic menu repertoire almost always stays the same.  I mean, I like beets as much as the next guy, but after the fifteenth serving of borscht and black bread (judging by the taste, it is made just like regular bread, but the wheat in the recipe is replaced by dirt), you can be ready to kill people for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

Which brings me to the slow infiltration of American food into the Russian culture.  Since last year, I have been told that the number of McDonald’s in Moscow has increased from one to three, and in St. Petersburg from zero to one.  But it isn’t quite the same: there are two hamburgers on the menu: the “Beeg Makh,” and the hamburger.  There is one size of fries (small), and one size of Coke (small).  And don’t worry about telling them to only put a little ice in the drink – nobody in Russia puts ice in anything.  Lunch in McDonalds will run you about three bucks, or what was then about 20 percent of the average Russian’s monthly wage.  There is also a Pizza Hut in Moscow (they’ll deliver before the next ice age or it’s free) and a Baskin Robbins in St. Petersburg.  Thankfully, not one of the 33 flavors is “double-dip vodka borscht fudge.”

To make a long story short (probably too late), after five weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I had a horrible desire to go home – not for Democracy, or Home, or Freedom or the Statue of Liberty – but for American food and my girlfriend.  And don’t tell my girlfriend, but I could have delayed coming home even longer if someone had brought me a bucket of Extra Crispy chicken from KFC.

Friends in Moscow, 1993
Friends in Moscow, 1993

Fifth Rule: Don’t hang around the hotels too much.  For one thing, you miss out on the real Russia.  For another thing, the foreign hotels are ridiculously expensive, and you still probably can’t get ice in your drink.  The Russian hotels are cheap, but are decorated like the Waldorf-Astoria after a limited-scale nuclear war, and the staff is hindered by the fact that apparently nobody in Russia has realized that a “service economy” has something to do with “service.”  

The first night we stayed in Moscow, one of the other students on the trip and I were up late.  Wondering what to do, I realized the only proper thing for a journalist to was to go drink in the hotel bar.  My friend ordered a screwdriver and was greeted with blank looks that seemed to say, “the poor American fool thinks he’s in a hardware store.”  No one had heard of the drink because the Russians had plenty of vodka but apparently orange juice just doesn’t grow on trees there.  His bar tab was itemized: four dollars for the vodka, and ten for the orange juice.

Sixth Rule: Learn a little Russian before you go.  Specifically, learn “nyet,” or no.  Practice saying it frequently, and in a loud voice with a stiff-arm gesture and a menacing sneer that says, “We won the Cold War, so back off.”  As soon as you are recognized as an American – which usually takes about three seconds – you will be approached by everyone from wizened old pensioners to tiny Slavic versions of the Little Rascals, trying to sell you anything from “genuine Soviet military pins” to “real American baseball caps,” bearing the logo of the Cleveland Redskins or the New York Cowboys.  

Eventually you develop a reflex for saying, “No, thanks, I don’t want any, and sorry, I don’t speak English anyway.”  It’s about that time that you look at the sixty- and seventy-year-old retired women, standing on the streets, selling cigarettes and trying to augment their average 9,000 Ruble (eight dollars) monthly income any way they can.  Their lined, thin faces show a mixture of pride and fear.  Pride in being Russian, pride coming from surviving a life of strife and turmoil, pride which keeps them from begging like so many of their countrymen have been reduced to. And fear that they may not be able to survive a new capitalist age that they neither fully understand or have any real place in.

I wasn’t a smoker, but I bought a pack from an old woman on a street corner in St. Petersburg.  She was selling them for 150 Rubles; I gave her a 200 Ruble bill and as she fumbled through her one and five Ruble bills, I told her, “Nyeh nada” – to keep the change.  She almost cried.  “Spaceba, spaceba,” – thank you – she told me again and again and blessed me.  All for about five cents.

And then all your pride in being a Buick-driving, VCR-watching, I-floss-my-teeth-with-small-countries, capital “A” American breaks down.  You realize just how bad things are there: a country that is just ending one of the darkest of dark ages and trying to rejoin a world that feared it – and left it behind.  They are trying to be reborn as a capitalist economic power – and it’s a painful “I-was-in-labor-with-you-for-three-weeks” birth.  You don’t feel superior; you just feel sorry for the people who have to live with the bitter fruits of the past. 

While I was there last summer, the Ruble exchange rate went from 1,000 to a dollar to 1,300 per dollar – 30 percent currency inflation – in five weeks.  It has stabilized much since then, but in many ways the situation is a thin veneer of order over a lot of misery and people who feel like they’ve just moved to a new planet.  Granted, it comes pre-furnished, but it’s still a new planet.  

Much has stayed the same: most of the mid- or lower-level civil servants are still the old Communist “apparatchiks” who were running things before.  The State still owns almost all of the land (accordingly, most Russians still pay less than a dollar a month for rent and utilities) and almost all of the businesses.  

And yet it has all changed: the main streets and parks are home to countless beggars.  These people have lived their entire lives under a government that watched everything, that controlled everything.  And now their government can barely take care of itself, let alone the people who have always depended on its insulating their world.  It will take Russia a long time to change, and it will involve many sacrifices.  And when you walk past these sacrifices, selling their cigarettes, you can’t help but taste the tiniest part of their pain.  And you become very glad that there is a home to go back to.

All things considered, Russia is a wonderful place to spend time.  My friends and I walked along the riverfront of St. Petersburg at two a.m. without any worries – something you probably shouldn’t attempt in a large city in America without bringing along a Mechanized Infantry batallion.  I had a wonderful time haggling in street markets, making offers in my poor Russian, and getting responses in much better English.  Russia is a country that reads: book vendors were everywhere, and a bound volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies in Russian cost me 55 cents.  You haven’t laughed until you’ve seen “The Karate Kid” in a movie theater with dubbed-over Russian voices.  And you can go to Russian dance clubs, recycle old dances like the “Twist” or the “Mashed Potato,” and everyone will think you’re a disco god.