It was something of a Presidential weekend.
I tagged along with Leigh Ann to Washington, DC this past weekend for one of her veterinary conferences to meet her required number of Continuing Education credits for the year. We made it an old-fashioned road trip by car. No stress in getting to the airport in time. No snail-like security lines. No worrying about making an improper remark as we stood without our shoes, our belts or our dignity, hoping we would not trigger an alarm that would require an additional pat-down or dreaded cavity search.
We only had to worry about not running out of candy bars and bottled water, staying far enough above the speed limit in Virginia to keep up with the flow, yet not so much as to attract the attention of one of the state troopers hiding among the bushes in the meridian every ten miles or so. We brought along our GPS, loose MapQuest pages and, sensing that might not be enough, even bought an old-fashioned road atlas to go along with the four tattered copies we had left back home on the bookcase.
You might wonder how you could possibly fill nine hours of being in a car conversing with just one person, but I don’t think we had the radio on for more than a few minutes going either direction. Flying along at just eighteen inches off the ground you see plenty of things — and people — to stimulate a conversation, and you end up sharing thoughts and observations with your traveling partner that you hadn’t done since you were dating and trying to give that other person some real insight into your true personality.
While Leigh Ann studied her conference catalog, selected the lectures and demonstrations she wanted to attend, and wondered what friends she would be able to reconnect with (all sound familiar?), I headed into DC each day. While I waited for a break in my son Blake’s schedule at Georgetown, I did what any typical tourist would do: I headed for the Smithsonian.
My particular Smithsonian museum, however, consisted of a sterile library lined with a dozen microfilm readers and hundreds of thousands of four-inch reels of historical documents photographed and compressed onto narrow strips of black film. While I wrote recently of the many doors a Google search can open, even the internet cannot yet compare with all of the information entrusted to the millions of miles of fragile black film stored on microfilm in libraries across the country.
And so I spent a morning reading such exciting documents as the 1906 annual report for the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, a list of exhibitors and what they brought to the1907 Boston Society of Arts and Crafts exhibition held in Copely Hall the following February, plus handwritten letters, newspaper clippings, grainy photographs and newspaper reviews of some of the first Arts and Crafts exhibitions in this country.
You see, I know how to have a good time in DC.
But there was also time for afternoon walks with my son, starting at the Washington monument, talking our way past the Lincoln Memorial, through the World War II Memorial, between the massive stones at the Martin Luther King pavilion, around the pond to the waterfalls of the F.D.R. Memorial and, finally, to the sanctum of Thomas Jefferson, looking like the Father of the Declaration of Independence as he stood gazing across the water back toward Abraham Lincoln, a man Jefferson would never meet, but whom he probably suspected would someday come along and free the 200 slaves who worked on Jefferson’s two sprawling plantations a hundred miles south of the new capitol.
We took a side trip to Monticello on our way home on Sunday, taking advantage of yet another perk of a driving trip: freedom to explore more than the in-flight catalog stuffed in the vinyl seat pocket pressed against your knees. As both a student and a teacher of American history, I thought I knew a great deal about Thomas Jefferson. How at age 33 he had written the most read piece of literature in America, how he had inherited thousands of acres of fields and forests in the lush, sparsely-inhabited colony of Virginia, how he had served his country as an ambassador, governor, cabinet officer, vice-president and two-term president before retiring to his beloved Monticello at age 66, where he spent the last 17 years of his life.
But what I did not know and what haunted me the rest of the trip and into the following day was that Thomas Jefferson, that tall, proud Renaissance man who could design buildings, invent handy devices, manage a 10,000 acre farm, spend forty years building and perfecting his house, support a household of more than twenty relatives — children, grandchildren, in-laws and people who just showed up on his hilltop retreat and never seemed in a hurry to leave — died deep in debt, knowing that despite those final days, weeks, months and years of hard work and sleepless worry, his beloved Monticello would have to be auctioned off to pay his creditors.
The country, as it turned out, was mired in a financial recession that rendered his over-worked fields nearly worthless. He was land rich and cash poor, saddled with a $20,000 loan he had co-signed for a friend who had then defaulted and fled, leaving Jefferson to face his anxious creditors. He died on the precise day — July 4, 1826 — that fifty years earlier he and his fellow rebels had signed the Declaration of Independence.
He died knowing that his place in history had been secured, but that his 33 years of service to his country, years that kept him in Philadelphia, Richmond, Paris and Washington rather than watching over his land and his family, had left him $100,000 in debt, and his family facing a troubled and uncertain future without him.
It was a sacrifice I had never truly appreciated.
And one that I will never forget, all because of a road trip.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week.