Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Liberty Bell: Just the Two of Us

Well, I did it again, said I'd talk about one thing and neglected it for another. Yesterday's post was supposed to be about Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but reading over it, I'm darned if I can find any reference to a bell. What is it they say about good intentions? 

I suppose, without realizing it, the omission was intentional. Independence Hall was the main attraction and my primary reason for driving downtown in the first place. I really didn't think about seeing the Liberty Bell, despite all the times I've watched National Treasure (2004). It simply didn't cross my examination-addled mind.

That's the thing about medical boards exams, if I've never mentioned it before. They're exhausting. Whether they test your command of first year science material, second year disease processes, or physical exam skills, by the time you've finished, you've got every reason to be justifiably weary. Whoever first described them as "marathons" was exactly right. They feel like 26 hard-fought miles whose successful completion depend as much on adequate sleep, nutrition, and psychological preparation, as upon whatever study and skills review you may have done. Which helps explain why I couldn't entertain seeing both Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell at the same time; by then my brain had seriously limited space and Independence Hall won the toss.

The moment I saw the Liberty Bell, however, thanks to the comment of a passing stranger, was more than a surprise, though definitely all of that. The last thing I expected was that it might be even remotely accessible. Especially considering how my efforts to position myself on the Independence Hall side of Chestnut Street for a closer shot of Washington's statue were quickly suppressed by a guard whose face clearly stated, "Don't Tread On Me." Spending the night in the Philadelphia hoosegow didn't seem like the best way to pad my resume, so I retreated across the street like Washington's forces fleeing New York ahead of the British. 

Oddly enough, where the Liberty Bell was concerned, there were no guards to be found. Then again, the glass enclosure surrounding it isn't the sort of thing a graffiti artist with a piece of chalk could insult, whereas the brick facade of Independence Hall isn't quite so resilient. But I liked that, their absence, I mean. It gave me a chance to stand a mere few feet away from it, nose pressed against the glass like a Dickens character, just me and the Liberty Bell, just the two of us. Maybe it comes from all those days spent wandering the meadows among the trees as a kid, the sense that inanimate objects aren't soulless, but to me, it felt like I was in the presence of something sacred. 

The Liberty Bell hangs in solitude, as though nothing else is quite worthy of its company, and the structure in which it is housed could easily be a glass cathedral. Maybe my theological background is coming out and someone else might view all of this quite differently, and that's fair to say. Still, there's something about the Liberty Bell that made me feel it ought to be shown reverence. It was the only thing I wanted a photo of myself alongside that afternoon. The unnamed tourist, the one who drew my attention to it, was my photographer.

The memorial itself is a city block long and the President's House or it's framework, lies at the far end. Walking back toward Independence Hall, I had to stop and gaze at the Bell again, truly feeling loathe to leave. The hour was getting late and I needed to, but I didn't want to. I can't explain it, but there's a beneficence, or better yet, a holiness about the Liberty Bell. Not the fearful, overpowering mystery of a burning bush, more like the gentle, suffer the little children to come unto me, sort of holiness. A holiness born of vulnerability, one the Liberty Bell was foundered with and that became evident when it rang. But even now, when it appears silent, it is not silent.

Draw near. Closer. Closer still and listen. Listen as I did. Can't you hear it whisper? 

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author.)   

Monday, October 14, 2013

Independence Hall, Itching for a Fight

Like most kids raised outside of New England, I suppose my earliest tour guide through Colonial America was Walt Disney. Televised reruns of classic films like Johnny Tremain (1957) and the animated Ben and Me (1953) coupled with my imagination to turn me into an idealistic young member of the Sons of Liberty or Benjamin Franklin's collegial churchmouse, depending on the moment. By the time college rolled round, I was a prime candidate for a major in history and when 1776 (1972) was released, I fell in love. With the movie, that is. There was a girl at the time, but that's another story and love wasn't destined to be the key player in our plot line.

Independence Hall is another matter. When Benjamin Gates was there, in National Treasure (2004), I was still in the throes of seeking medical school admission. It was the second of a three year process that ultimately led me to Maine and a farm on the banks of the Saco River in a town founded in 1772. But medical school is time consuming and Philadelphia miles away. It wasn't until this past week that the spin of fate's roulette wheel dropped me into place within a stone's throw of the building in which the Declaration of Independence was debated and signed.

As I wrote yesterday, I'd been in Philly for a day -- actually, two, one to settle in and get a decent night's rest, the second to repeat a medical board exam. I wasn't sure when I'd be finished, so I scheduled my flight home for late in the evening. Done at three, there was time to drive by Independence Hall, if nothing else. At least I could say I'd seen it. Well, you can guess the rest. Once I saw it, I had to find a parking space that wasn't reserved for carriages, and get as close as I could. 

A skeleton crew of park rangers or police, I never quite figured out which they were, had everything cordoned off, but it was still possible to walk along South Fifth St. and place my hand on the outside wall of Philosophical Hall, that adjoins Independence Hall on the north. Philosophical Hall is where Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society. Immediately across the street is the Library Building, the site of the first public library in America, also founded by Franklin, whose statue adorns the facade over the entry.

I wasn't prepared for how it would feel, seeing Independence Hall for the first time. It's different from Boston and Patriot's Day or Maine and First Parish Meeting House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in this part of the Colonies. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the war moved south. One of my neighbors, or he would have been had I lived in 1775, Lieutenant Samuel Merrill (his restored farm is Jessie Livingstone's dream house in Pink Hats), fought at Bunker Hill. I'd have been there with him, if I could. But what I mean is, there is a comfortable quality, almost an ordinariness in the best sense of the word, about the Revolutionary period up here -- it seems less formal, cozier, more familiar. It's everywhere you look. It's like visiting an old friend.

Independence Hall is surrounded by downtown Philadelphia. It's an urban environment and it was back then, too. As urban as you could get in 1776 when street sweepers cleaned up horse manure rather than cans and candy wrappers. Once you get past that, there's a feeling that virtually seeps out of the cobblestones. It was as though I was part of something electric, exciting, on the brink. There's a tension in that historic square mile that hasn't dissipated one bit in three hundred years. Visit City Tavern and you're certain Jefferson and John Adams will be there, plotting Revolution over a pint. One sight leads to another and before you know it, you're reaching for your flintlock, itching for a fight. 

I liked Philadelphia. It's a young city and a friendly one. The residents drive like bats from hell on the highways, but meet them anywhere else and they're pleasant and easy to engage. It's a city, nevertheless, and Portland is big enough for me. I loved Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but I love our homespun version up here even more. I'm sure Lt. Merrill must have felt similarly, when he left Boston behind for his farm on the banks of the Saco River.  

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author. Additional images of Independence Hall may be seen here.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Once Upon a Rainy Afternoon

I was standing across the street from Independence Hall when I heard a woman's voice behind me, "Turn around." I obeyed, and in the dim light of the rainy, grey, late afternoon, about thirty feet away, saw a golden outline. My breath caught in my throat as I said, "Oh my God, it's the Liberty Bell." I must have looked like a child on Christmas morning when another tourist and her husband smiled and told me where I could get even closer. I hurried to the window they indicated and there it was, as though waiting for me all these years.

I'd never seen Independence Hall, either, until minutes earlier. I was in Philadelphia for a medical licensing exam and had a few hours to kill before my flight home. The day before had already turned miraculous when, while searching for a discount store to purchase a few items I needed at the last minute, I noticed the sign for Valley Forge park. I couldn't believe it. I'd wanted to go there quite badly, but it looked too far on the map and this was a business trip, or so I told myself. Yet, there it was, as though it, too, had known I was coming and had waited long enough.

The park was closed, naturally, because of the governmental shut down. The Tea Party members of Congress, ironically named for those who sought liberty of conscience rather than the freedom to impose their views of conscience on others, weren't aware I'd be in Philadelphia, I'm sure. But Valley Forge had other ideas because Washington Memorial Chapel, dedicated to George Washington and located immediately across the street from Valley Forge, was open. 

I turned my rental car into the parking lot so quickly I'd have been a road hazard to anyone unfortunate enough to be following close behind. The church, an active Episcopal parish, is built in the classic English Gothic style with a bell tower drawing the eye skyward. Cannon -- period artillery pieces, some field, some naval, but all of them veterans that bombarded the British -- guard both sides of the entrance and line the grounds to the west and north.  

Inside is a lovely nave with stained glass on four sides. But it's not ornate, as you might expect, and the only statue is one of a young Washington on the side of the bell tower. It has the feel, however, of a castle, but since I've never been in a real one, it's really how I imagine it to be. I encountered a parishioner near the altar who answered my questions and listened, indulgently, as I described the turn of events leading me there. And that's how it seemed, as though my presence was no accident, even if it was.

Behind the church is a log cabin replete with walk-in fireplace that serves as a gift shop. At first, I thought I could be happy with a large mug bearing the image of winter 1777, but then I noticed the brass cannon. A British six-pound field gun, the staple of the Continental Army. Solid brass, about ten inches long and four high, I could see it sitting in my study, alongside smaller versions from the battlefield of Saratoga, Ft. Ticonderoga, and Maine's Ft. Knox, named for Henry Knox, who directed cannon fire against the advancing British at Bunker Hill. I left with the mug and the cannon.

Valley Forge is beautiful this time of year and probably more so at Christmas. The Christmas of 1777 was different. Wind blowing off the Delaware River, snow mixed with icy rain, Valley Forge was anything but beautiful to the sick and starving, ill-clad Continental Army, nearing total collapse. On a good day with mild traffic, you can drive the 43.5 miles from Valley Forge to Trenton in less than an hour. Marching the same distance, feet wrapped in rags, must have been agony. If you haven't seen The Crossing (2000), with Jeff Daniels as Washington, I'd encourage you to see it. Even members of the Continental Congress were unaware how close was defeat that bitterly cold Christmas morning.

I can easily identify with George C. Scott's character in the 1977 film, Patton, standing among the ruins of ancient Carthage and recounting how it was when the Romans conquered the city. Not that I believe in reincarnation, I don't mean that; it's just that history has always been a living thing for me and visiting those places where the course of human events was profoundly altered, I can't help but feel as though I was there, if only for a while, once upon a rainy afternoon.

Tomorrow, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.     

(Photo copyright by the author, 2013. Additional images of Valley Forge may be found here.) 
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