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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