By lex, on August 21st, 2011
Training was scheduled to begin at 1030, one of the aircraft needing a functional check flight at 0800, and our instructor one of the few qualified to conduct that operation. I arrived half an hour early to see the machine getting airborne in full grunt, the very modest flight path angle testifying to the delta wing’s desire for more airspeed in flight than the tires could sustain on deck.
A carrier strike group is at sea, and the company is supporting their operations. We were a little disappointed, but not surprised, when the balance of our training for Saturday was disrupted by customer-driven changes to the flight schedule and – from the standpoint of new knowledge gained – the day was pretty much a bust, apart from picking through the various engine related emergency procedures, notes and cautions as contained in the pocket checklist.
Headed back to the motel and made some arrangements for the short drive up to colonial Williamsburg. Or, as all of the literature hearabouts insists, Colonial Williamsburg.
I long ago became accustomed to the relatively treeless skylines of California, but when I first had arrived on the west coast, I remember being oppressed by the enormous disk of sky that pressed down upon me from every direction, no cover to be found close to hand. Driving up first the Merrimac Trail, and then the Colonial National Historic Parkway *, I was reminded once again what home was supposed to feel like; the sheltering arms of old oaks reaching over protectively, the sense of driving through an unexplored wilderness on some road that fell from heaven before settling comfortably in with its arboreal surroundings.
I arrived at the hotel *and was greeted by a doorman who ushered me within. Having checked in, I brushed past an off-going maid and groundskeeper on the way to my room, exchanging meaningless pleasantries along the way.
Williamsburg, for those who have not had the chance to visit, has been tenderly cherished to an almost pristine historical perfection, presenting to florid, gasping, plus-sized tourists in cargo shorts, sandals and espadrilles a vision of how their ancestors lived 300 years ago. Guides in period clothing patiently fan themselves and offer nuggets of historical information about the town, its colonial founders and life in the 18th century British colony of Virginia. Public buildings were made of red brick kilned locally, the houses chiefly constructed of clapboard wood, each with a privy some distance removed in the backyard from both the house itself and the well.
It is a tourist destination, but a discrete one: Ale mugs may be purchased at the Chowning’s Tavern beer garden for example, but there are no t-shirt stores, nor bumper sticker vendors neither. The internal roads are closed to automotive vehicles, but open to pedestrians and one may travel from place in a coach and two if the very short distances between one landmark or another cannot be negotiated in the August heat.
I first came here as a sixth grader in one of the compulsory state education field trips of the time, but remember little of the visit, having within my head little but disdain for history at that age, it belonging chiefly to dead people whose names I did not know, and who were no kin to me. Coming again some forty years later I found the village unchanged, but my own perspective – having now some history of my own – altogether altered and I was charmed almost to rapture conjuring images of life in simpler times. I was also appreciative, if not envious of the period actors; maids, gentlemen and gentle ladies, tradesmen, farmers, merchants and servants sweltering in their costumes. The proliferation of Union Jacks was at first a little off-putting but then I remembered that the visage Williamsburg presents to the world is of pre-revolutionary Virginia, although Patrick Henry’s defiance of the Stamp Act at the Capitol is noted as a transitional coda to the Republic. Freedom and liberty were soon to be the watchwords which brought fire to this corner of the empire.
Heading down towards the capitol to witness the retirement of the militia and colors at early evening, I chanced across an elevated stage with two women in period costume and a man in jeans and a red t-shirt. They were holding forth in theatrical tones, and I turned my thoughts outside as I slowly passed to listen to their discourse.
“They got to sell us here, or else we’ll be sold to the lead mines,” the first woman said.
“Don’t nobody come back from the lead mines,” the man in jeans replied. And so on.
They were black, of course, something that I had not truly noted until I attended their remarks. Their discussion was meant as an educational micro-drama about slavery in my own, my native land. How politically correct, I thought a bit sourly, doubting that this had been on the educational agenda when I was first here back in the early 1970s. But the next group I encountered was an African American family wandering up the other way. I found myself wondering what the children would make of the slave market scene they would soon inescapably encounter.
There is no other way to say it but this: Race is more in your face in Virginia than it is in California, as is history. I have one prism through which to view our colonial past, the family walking past me had another. Both were valid, but there is only a very little overlap at the human intersections.
I watched the colors retired, the muskets and cannon loudly discharged, the fife and drum boys march away. Headed back towards the hotel, and saw the town through a different set of eyes. Each little house, however mean, in addition to the jakes and well had a smaller, shabbier neighbor just nearby – servants quarters. The larger homes had half-slant additions to the back to serve the same purpose. The water from those wells was undoubtedly drawn by slaves, the grounds tended by those brought here in irons, and to whom liberty was an alien concept.
As I approached the hotel that sits just outside the colonial plaza in modern, 21st century America, I became aware in a way that I had not been before that the guests were all my age or older, obviously economically comfortable, personally at ease, white. The doorman was black, a fact that had not really registered to me on our first encounter but which fact probably had not escaped him, as were the groundskeepers and maids.
We’ve come such a long way.
**Links had to be changed – Ed