Monday, September 2, 2013

A Day at the Museum

I'm doing some military training near Baltimore and my family came down for the long weekend since we're only about three hours away.  My wife and daughter had come down to DC (which is only about a half-hour drive from Baltimore, if you aren't familiar with the area) for my daughter's birthday a few weeks ago, but they didn't have time to do everything they wanted so had some unfinished business.  We spent an afternoon at the International Spy Museum.  It was interesting and they had some pretty cool stuff in it, including the US seal in which the Soviets had hidden a bugging device.  It hung in the ambassador's study for six years before it was discovered.  Actually, if you knew anything about the spy business of the '60s through the '80s or '90s, you already knew about many of the artifacts, or could read between some of the lines to understand what they weren't saying.  They also had a special display on James Bond, which was pretty cool, showing artifacts from a number of the Bond films, such as Jaws' teeth, Bond's Aston Martin and a lot of other things.  One neat thing was a film of former CIA agents telling their best "Bond Moments". 

While there were some cool things at the Spy museum, it was the next day that really made the weekend for Lynn and I, if not for the kids.  Unfortunately, because we had not really planned to do two of the three things we ended up doing, I didn't have my camera with me, and neither did my wife.  Only my daughter had thought to bring hers and her memory card was almost full because of some video she had taken at the school field trip last spring.  In fact, Lynn didn't even get the idea to snap a couple of pics with her phone until we were pretty much done with the personal tour that follows.  She got a couple of random pics, and both she and Julia got some nice photos at Arlington.

My family and I found ourselves in Annapolis with some extra time on our hands.  It had been a long-time goal of mine to pay my respects at the tomb of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones in the crypt of the chapel at the United States Naval Academy, and being so close I couldn't pass up the opportunity.  We pulled up to the museum and it being my nature to never pass up a museum (especially a free one) without a browse inside (regardless of how quick), we went in. 

My daughter pre-decided that she would be exceptionally bored here (as she is by EVERY museum that daddy drags her into!) and having no interest in listening to dad explain any of the absolutely awesome things we were looking at in the display cases, she zipped on ahead and breezed through with just a glance at the items in the cases.  A couple of times, she came back to me and said, "Daddy, I found something neat!  Look at this!"  I think she actually did find the items more interesting when she let me explain a little about them to her - like happened when I told her the story of the USS Maine - but she wasn't going to admit that to me.  At one point, we were sitting on the floor in front of a case talking about what we were looking at, and a museum employee came by and commented on our discussion.  We chatted for a bit and I thought he'd move on, but he stuck with us as we looked at a couple more cases and talked about what was in them.  I mentioned to him that Julia was determined to be bored and after a minute he asked if my family and I would like to visit The Attic, where they store all of the items that are not on display.  I don't know whether he recognized my knowledge of and love for naval history, or just thought he'd be doing Julia a favor in making the experience more interesting, but I was stunned, to say the least, and of course I said yes.  Julia was still dubious about it, not understanding the rare opportunity and treat she was in for.

We followed him out of the elevator into a large room that looked like it was under construction.  He stopped at a large crate, opened the top, and pulled a flag out of it, which he unfolded and held up for us.  It was a 13-star flag from the Civil War, which had flown from one of the ships at the Battle of Mobile Bay.  And we were *that* close to it, even able to touch it.  It had protective stitching to preserve it all over it, but it was still quite beautiful.  EDIT: While reading my blog post, my wife reminded me that he mentioned this particular flag was made by the same woman who made the Star Spangled Banner.  END EDIT.  We then went through a set of doors where he stopped to flip on a whole bank of lights.  A quick glance around didn't reveal anything too amazing, but as we began walking and he started pointing things out or holding them up for us, the amazing was revealed. 

Even as I write this the next day, I can't remember all of the cool things we got to see and hold.  Model ships from all over the world and all periods of history were everywhere, trays of medals (foreign and domestic), cabinets of uniforms (including a full-length, fur-lined, leather jacket worn by a naval officer on Arctic duty during WWII), drawers of recruiting and propaganda posters through history - there is so much to recall, I can't think of all of it.  There were some items from Perry's visit to Japan.  A wall full of paintings by N.C. Wyeth depicting various events in the American Revolution.  One of the most unique items was a smoking set presented to the Academy by the Royal Thai Navy made out of a tiger skull.  He showed us several stand-up cabinets full of 1/700 model ships - they have the entire US and Japanese fleets of WWII in that scale - and another couple of cabinets of 1/1200 and 1/2400 models.  He seemed interested when I mentioned to Adam that 1/700 was a great scale for gaming, and was impressed that I have several hundred ships in 1/6000 and another hundred or so in 1/1250 for coastals. 

One of the things that my daughter really, really loved were the knick-knacks made for Admiral Hyman Rickover out of used nuclear reactor control rods, including a desk-top pen and pencil holder.  (If you don't get the connection between Rickover and nuclear energy, you need to do some reading!)  She loved the color and random crystallization of the metal.  They were very pretty in an industrial sort of way.

One of the highlights for my wife and I was when he opened a cabinet of documents and pulled out a random document.  Opening it and laying it on the table, it was an order from the Continental Congress releasing the captain of the ship Ranger from duty (basically for being a jerk) and replacing him with a fellow by the name of John Paul Jones.  It was signed by some guy named John Hancock, who was President of the Continental Congress.  EDIT: Again, my better half reminded me that the important part of the document was that it described what the new flag (i.e., the national flag) was to look like.  You can see where my brain is, forgetting that part of the document.  END EDIT.  When he pulled this out of the cabinet, he did not know that I had done a lot of research during my Master's work on various Revolutionary War naval issues, or that had I continued with my Ph.D., my research would have focused on John Hancock.  To touch a document bearing his signature and dealing with naval matters was almost more than my heart could bear.  And I didn't need my spectacles to read his signature.

He pulled out a couple of other random documents, one an order from an admiral to a couple of gun-boats during the Civil War, but none held a candle to the Hancock signature. 

Another of the highlights for me was when he opened the weapons vault.  He began pulling weapons off the racks and handing them to me or the kids.  We were able to hold and inspect Chief Red Stick's carbine, presented to him by the Prince of Wales and captured from him by a Marine (if I remember correctly - could have been naval) officer serving under Andrew Jackson, Sharp's and Spencer's carbines, flintlock muskets, a German 1898 Mauser (no, not the K.98 of World War fame, a full-length 1898), and a whole range of WWII weapons including an M1, a Thompson, an MP 40, an Austen, a PPSh, and I don't remember what all else.  He pulled the Holy Grail of WWII machineguns - an MG 34 - out of a rack and "handed" it to my 7-year-old boy.  As he slowly released the weight, Adam's arms sunk lower and lower until he couldn't hold it.  He then handed it to me.  It was a beast - weighing in at nearly 27 pounds - but what a beauty at the same time. 

We held weapons from the 1600s through Vietnam (he gave my son an RPG launcher to hold, and a home-made Vietnamese zip gun), including a shipboard wall gun, a Japanese Tanegashima, and others.  We were *that* close to and could touch a Japanese heavy machinegun from World War II, a WWI British Vickers off a US Jenny, a German Parabellum with the water cooling shroud installed, and the twin MG from the rear gunner of a Japanese light bomber.  He opened drawers and handed us pistols ranging from a Navy Colt, a Spanish pin gun, various pepperboxes and boot guns to a Webley, a broomhandle Mauser, a Walther PPK, and a whole slew of others.  It was awesome to say the least.  Probably close to half of our time in the museum was spent in the vault.

On the way back out, he stopped and opened a cabinet drawer and began pulling out prints from the 1600s depicting contemporary naval battles that were so pristine they looked like they could have been printed yesterday. 

My 45-minute foray into the USNA museum turned into a 2-hour-plus marathon.  My daughter decided that it was pretty cool after all, though both of the kids were ready to go after that.  John Paul Jones' tomb was almost a denoument after all that, but it was still an incredible sight for me, having taken so long to get there.  (Being in the Army National Guard, you might not get my love for the Navy.  My father had been a Marine in WWII and was in the Navy during the Korean War.  I had considered applying for the Naval Academy when I was in high school and had twice taken various exams to go into the Navy as a Nuke.  I chose not to for stupid reasons and often still wish I had gone active duty in the Navy when I was young.) 

Following that, we went to see the Lincoln Memorial in DC, another bit of leftover business from Julia's visit the previous month.  We were all hot and tired and cranky at that point, but again, we were so close, I couldn't resist crossing the bridge to Arlington.  I knew the kids just wanted to get back to the hotel, but Lynn and I kept cryptically talking about a visit to Arlington, and it was driving Julia nuts because she didn't know what was there.  I told her I wouldn't explain it to her until we were in the car on the way over.  She said that was fine as long as it didn't have anything to do with the Civil War, World War I or World War II.  Little did she know...

When I explained what Arlington was to her, she actually thought it sounded pretty interesting and was excited to go see it.  When we got there, I didn't realize we were going to have to walk so far to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as everyone was already hot and tired, but everyone soldiered on, so to speak.  As we walked, though, I was talking with my daughter, and since she had pointed out John F. Kennedy in the USNA museum, I mentioned that he was buried at Arlington and gave her the choice of going to see his grave as well or just going to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  She decided to go see his grave as well, which I was proud of her for.  After that, we just happened to get to the Tomb of the Unknowns a few minutes before the Changing of the Guard so we got to watch that too.  Lynn and Julia were both enthralled by it.  It turned out to be an extra bonus and something that Julia will remember for a long time.  I don't think Adam really understood the impact of row after row of tombstones, mostly of people who had served their country - many who had died while serving it - but Julia and I talked about it and I think she had at least an inkling of what it means.  One of the things I hope to develop in them is a strong respect for those who have served or are serving our country, and for those who gave their lives serving us. 

The kids are still at an age where they don't really realize what an amazing day they had yesterday.  The things they got to see up close - and handle if they wanted to - at the museum are things people don't even ordinarily get to see.  I mean, to hold a one-of-a-kind artifact like Red Stick's carbine or to be *that* close to a document signed by John Hancock without a sheet of fracture-proof plexiglass between you and it is just out of this world.  I think Julia is starting to get it at 10, but Adam is still a world away at 7.  He thought it was cool, but in a different way than Julia.  He got to hold real guns - couldn't care less the history behind them, he just got to hold them.

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