Archive | February 2020

Circus Trip 2018: Mary Todd Lincoln House

Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lexington, Kentucky

The Mary Todd Lincoln House itself was built between 1803 and 1806, and originally served as an inn.  If you don’t know Mary Todd Lincoln or why you should care about her family home, she was the wife of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln. Mary’s father, Robert Todd, purchased the 14 room mansion in 1832 and lived here until his death in 1849.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House

 

Mary Todd Lincoln – 1846 – from Wikipedia

Mary was born in 1818, and didn’t move here until 1832, and even then, spent much of her time living in a boarding school for girls about a mile away.  Even though she could have traveled back and forth to school from home, she felt that staying at the school was a better option; she described the school as being more of a home for her than the home with her father and stepmother.  In her late teens, Mary moved to Springfield to live with her sister.  That’s my long way of saying that Mary Todd Lincoln really didn’t spent much time living in the Mary Todd Lincoln House, even though it was the family home during a part of her childhood.

Unfortunately, legal disputes after Todd’s death meant that the home was auctioned.  In the days after it left the Todd family, it was used as a boarding house, a grocery store, and even a brothel.  By the 1950s, the home was in rough shape, and a grassroots campaign began to save the home.  It was opened as a museum in 1977, making it the first museum dedicated to a First Lady.

Due to the fact that it is dedicated to Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, it tells a different story of her than is frequently depicted.  They are honest about her struggles with grief and mental illness but they also share that Mary was a very intelligent woman who played an enormous role in shaping her husband’s political career.  Abraham Lincoln married up; Mary Todd came from the upper class – high society of the West.  She knew politics, was very ambitious, and was not a woman content to wait in the wings in what was a society controlled by men.  The docents let visitors know about Mary’s qualities and her genteel upbringing.  They share openly about her trouble with her stepmother, and the fact that her father was often absent.  It was Mary’s sisters who felt more like mothers to her.

The home has been restored to what it would have looked like when Mary Todd Lincoln lived here, and they have been able to acquire some of the original Todd furnishings and household goods that were in the home.

They also have artifacts from Mary’s later life, including an original advertisement announcing the last night of Our American Cousin from its run at Ford’s Theatre, the play that Mary and Abraham attended the night Lincoln was assassinated.  If you read the date, you see that it was advertising the last night as Friday, April 14, 1865, the very night Lincoln was shot.

An advertisement for Our American Cousin

The docents at the home really do a great job of telling the story of Mary as her own person, rather than an extension of her later President husband.  As I have said, they are honest and candid about her shortcomings.  However, they also explain that her own and President Lincoln’s opponents painted an unfair portrait of her in the media, and their later “tell all” books.  Sensationalism drives sales; this hasn’t changed since the 1800s, and what better way to make a buck?

They allow photos within the home (yay!) and allow enough time in each room for guests to see everything and ask questions.  They really encourage questions even!  This was my second visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln Home, and it is still one of the best home museums I have been to.  If you are in Lexington, do visit!

 

 

 

Astoria Weekend: A Fort and a Column

Day 3, Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday morning of our Astoria trip, we found a little breakfast place called Arnie’s Cafe, just south of Astoria (in Warrenton) and stopped for a bite. The food was delicious, and there was no wait! We must have gotten there at just the right time though because it got busy after we were seated!

After breakfast we headed to Fort Stevens State Park to explore. I have blogged about Fort Stevens before, home of the Peter Iredale shipwreck, and a historic battery dating from before World War I. We checked out the beach first, and of course explored the shipwreck! The kids had fun writing their names in the sand and looking for shells and interesting rocks. Unfortunately, this stretch of the beach, on the open ocean, isn’t known for having many intact shells.

The kids took off their shoes and waded in the water, despite the fact that it was a pretty cool day! That’s par for the course in the Pacific Northwest I suppose, having your hood up and tightly cinched around your head, while wading barefoot in the ocean. It was windy!

After we had our fill of the beach, and needed to warm up, we headed over to the battery. The Fort Stevens battery was built between 1863 and 1864, an earthwork battery meant to stand as a sentry to the threat of invasion by sea, and to stand guard over the mouth of the Columbia River.  They were more concerned about invasion by the British though, as there were long standing territorial disputes in the region. The fort was expanded and the current concrete batteries were constructed in 1897.

Thankfully, invasions never came, but the battery was shelled by a Japanese submarine on June 21, 1942.  The shells fell harmlessly away from the fort, and no damage was done; the Fort Commander did not allow his men to even return fire.  The battery was decommissioned after World War II and the guns were removed by 1947; it became part of Fort Stevens State Park. It is open to the public, and young and the young at heart can climb up on its walls and explore its rooms and stairways.

And if you are like me, you can step off a step, suddenly discover you stepped wrong, twist your ankle, fall down, and skin your knee. Yep. Not often, but sometimes, I’m a real klutz. Oops. It really hurt! Of course, it also hurt my pride as the flash of pain left me unable to get up for a few minutes, and the nice man down below watched me hit the concrete and called up to ask if I was ok? Yeah… I will need to sit here on my butt in the middle of the path for a minute though! I was undeterred in my adventure seeking, and not willing to give up on our day, so I soon powered through the pain and walked it off. OUCH!

Our next stop for the day was the Astoria Column. Built in 1926 as a way to showcase the history of the area and its discovery in 1811, the column is 125 feet tall and has an internal staircase rising 164 steps to the top. You can buy balsa wood airplanes for $1 at the Visitor’s Center; the kids enjoyed climbing to the top of the tower to launch them off the top. What fun and the views are spectacular!

That evening, we endured a long wait at Buoy Beer Company, but the kids were entertained by the plexiglass in the floor that allowed them to watch a huge male sea lion lounging on the dock below. The adults were entertained by the ability to enjoy a beer anywhere in the brewery, so we could relax with a cold one while we waited for a table. The food was amazing – I loved my fish and chips! The Champagne IPA was delicious!

Our last adventure of the day was to catch the sun lowering in the sky, and to drive over the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington. The bridge was opened in 1966 and is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America at 4.067 miles long. The sunset was beautiful, and a nice end to a great long weekend, as the next morning it was time to head home and back to real life.  What a wonderful getaway!

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Despite being very interested in history, I haven’t spent much time on the Revolutionary War. Maybe it is the stockings… or the wigs… both things I have a long-standing aversion to. Just ask my mom about the time when they dressed me up as Princess Leia in Star Wars, complete with the funny buns on the side of my head. I was about five, and I don’t have much hair, so she did the hairstyle with a wig. Which I removed and refused to put back on about two houses up the street. Times have not changed…

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

But anyway, back to the book. As one might now have guessed, this is a book about the Revolutionary War. It weaves its way through various parts of the war, from Washington’s struggles at the beginning, to Benedict Arnold’s glorious victories early on, to later events where Washington changes his strategy and starts seeing success. And of course, it recounts Benedict Arnold’s eventual treason and defection to the British Army.

It is a fascinating overview of the long years of the war, hitting several highlights for the Northern, Central and Southern corps of the Continental Army (they were called something else, but you get the gist). It tells the story through the perspective of several officers on both sides of the conflict: Washington, Arnold, Gates, Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as weaving in stories of some of the soldiers who were fighting on the front line.

While Philbrick follows a generally chronological timeline, he does bounce forward and back some as he shifts between storylines. The reader should also be aware that the book is not intended to be a complete history of the Revolutionary War, with Philbrick covering some portions and leaving others out entirely. Of course, a comprehensive history would be far outside the scope of one book, but he does seem to pick and choose which events he portrays, and some seem less relevant that others. I say that even knowing that the book is focused on Washington and Arnold…  That said, it is a worthwhile read that gave me a good general overview of some of the major points in the war that founded our country.

Extra points for the fact that the audio-book was read by Scott Brick, one of my favorite readers!

3 Stars.

President’s Day Weekend 2020

It’s late, and time for bed, but I just wanted to check in.  I got home a few hours ago from a wonderful, fun, relaxing, energizing weekend in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  Jeff and I spent the weekend at Champoeg State Park in a little cabin; it was just what I needed.  Here’s to a short work week!

P.S. And a happy belated birthday to my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln.

 

Book Review: Never Call Me a Hero

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway, by N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, and Timothy and Laura Orr

What can you say about this man, other than the fact that he is, indeed, a hero? Born Norman Kleiss, he went by Jack, until a mistake on a Hawaiian airfield earned him the nickname Dusty for the rest of his time in the service.

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway

Jack Kleiss wanted to be an aviator early on and set his goal toward getting into the US Naval Academy. He then had the opportunity to attend flight school, where he was trained as a fighter pilot. The United States declaration of war after Pearl Harbor led to his being stationed on a naval aircraft carrier.

Kleiss’ most significant combat operation in the war was as a participant in the Battle of Midway, a battle between the US and Japanese naval forces. Three US and four Japanese aircraft carriers were involved, as well as numerous heavy and light cruisers and destroyers on both fleets. The US was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor but was able to strike a decisive blow to the Japanese fleet. In all the Japanese lost all four of their aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, with another heavy cruiser sustaining damage. Over 3,000 Japanese sailors and aircrew lost their lives.

Kleiss’ book is written with the humble style so common among World War II veterans, the characteristic, “I was just doing my job,” deflections when someone points out the significance of the sacrifice he made for our country. He says a number of times that his fallen comrades are the real heroes, the men who were shot down as they bombed their targets, or worse, ran out of gas on their flight back to their carrier, because they were sent out knowing there wouldn’t be enough fuel for the return trip. And those men are truly heroes, but that doesn’t make Jack less so.

This poignant memoir relates his tale of the Battle of Midway, but also his long marriage to his wife Jean and his family, which he considers his real accomplishment. His simple style is relatable and easy to read, and he is honest enough to share his failings, as well as his frustrations with his superiors and colleagues. Jack had a long career in the Navy, training pilots after Midway, then moving into the private sector for a period before retirement.

Jack Kleiss lived to be 100 years old, another memorable accomplishment, but sadly died shortly before this memoir was published. We can’t tell him now, but he really was a hero.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Dutch Girl

The Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, by Robert Matzen

Ever since the first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was fascinated by Audrey Hepburn. So alive yet so reserved, so slender and beautiful, and so demure. In learning more, I was even more impressed. This hugely famous starlet who never liked being in the public eye, and who never got over her past, growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

She saw things that never left her; the trains deporting Jews to concentration camps, her beloved uncle arrested, held hostage and murdered in retailiation for the activities of the Dutch Resistance, her close-call near-kidnapping as the Nazis were rounding up young women to serve as domestics in Germany. Her demeanor was hugely shaped by this experience, and affected her greatly for the rest of her life.

Matzen does a superb job of detailing Hepburn’s life, from her early childhood, through her death of a rare intestinal cancer in January 1993, at the age of 63. His biography talks about the important pieces of her life, from the abandonment by her father, to her strained yet co-dependent relationship with her mother, who followed the German fascist movement in the 1930s, to her love of ballet and dance.  Her tenacious will to live and thrive meant Audrey never gave up, even when things seemed hopeless.

The book reads as one part biography, and one part action-adventure story, as he describes her experience growing up under Nazi occupation and participating in Dutch Resistance activities. Never one to toot her own horn or even talk much about her personal life, Matzen reveals a part of Audrey Hepburn that has been little known to her admirers.

4 stars.

Circus Trip 2018: What I Learned in a Month

August 2018

By the time I was wandering around the Mary Todd Lincoln House in August of 2018, I had been on the road for a month, camping and living out of my car.  I was proud of myself, to be quite honest, because I had imagined all sorts of things going wrong, and having all sorts of meltdowns while parked along the side of the road, and none of that had happened.  I’m being a little dramatic here, but I had worried before I left that I wouldn’t be cut out for the vagabond lifestyle.  Would I be able to do this?

After a month, I felt like I had worked through things.  I felt comfortable being on my own.  I wasn’t freaked out about not having a reservation each night.  I was doing this!  So, to share the knowledge, here’s a few things I learned as a solo woman, road-tripping through the United States.

My car fitted out

  • When in Montana, get gas before you get down to half a tank.  Once, I had more than a half a tank when I departed for my next destination, but given my route, and the distances between towns with gas stations in Montana, I was down to about 20 miles left by the time I saw a gas station!
  • Very few people tent camp in the Midwest.  I was largely alone in the tent section of the campgrounds I went to, as a general rule.

My tent, Mellow Yellow, in Montana

  • Don’t leave your tennis shoes outside at night.  The torrential downpour when I was staying at Boonesboro State Park in Kentucky soaked my tennis shoes through and through, and got them muddy enough that I had to take out the insoles and wash them out in the campground shower.
  • Don’t forget your quarters when you go to do your laundry…
  • Ask the locals for their recommendations on restaurants, hikes, and other places to see.  Even if you don’t have time, you can always put it on the list for next time!

Minnesota Cider – Tea Time Loon Juice – so delicious!

  • Get to your campground before dark.  For safety purposes, of course, but also because it is hard to cook and find your things by the light of a lantern.
  • Know your car.  AKA, if you have a Honda CR-V, don’t open the back doors from the inside without unlocking the doors with the fob.  It sets off the alarm!  Apologies for the early morning wake ups, my fellow campers!
  • Try the local flavor – even if you are saving money by not eating out that often, be sure to check out some of the local fare.  There are fun breweries, good wines, and unique regional dishes all over!

Louisville Hot Brown and a Mint Julep

  • Some of those gadgets are a real lifesaver!  I traveled with an electric cooler that plugged into my car, converters so I could plug regular plugs into the car’s cigarette lighters, rechargeable battery packs, a rechargeable/solar powered lantern, and bug screens for my windows so I could sleep in the car with the windows down on hot nights!  There is so much innovative gear for camping and road trips!
  • Not everybody will be kind, or friendly, or safe.  But most people will. People will definitely look at you funny if you are camping alone.  Just get used to it; they probably don’t mean any harm, and they might even be jealous.

What would you add to the list?