Monday, September 5, 2011
THE SIEGE OF WILLIAMSBURG
Katharine A. Russell
The previous summer, thanks to Dad, we saw the entire Civil War in thirty-six hours. It was 1965, the centenary of the surrender. My parents and I drove from Illinois to Maryland to visit relatives, a ritual repeated every summer since we had moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where my father accepted an engineering job with the General Electric Company. Other kids vacationed in Disneyland, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. We went home to Maryland to visit relations.
My folks tried to make these filial pilgrimages more palatable to my teenage sensibility by including sightseeing destinations along the way. The selected spots were invariably educational -- historic homes or geological wonders, regional museums or bug-infested battlefields. Any hopes I had for an amusement park with gut-wrenching roller coaster, a horseback adventure or a canoeing trip running the rapids were squelched in the interests of our gray-haired kin awaiting us in the old home state and my edification.
Dad had charge of the route. While he did the lion's share of the driving, this was not the reason for his controlling the itinerary. During WWII, he was a naval aviator and took great pride in his navigation skills, a talent he insisted his air force counterparts never mastered, because they were nothing more than foot soldiers with wings who flew planes as if they were transit buses, Ralph Kramdens aping Icarus.
Navy fliers descended – or ascended since they were warriors of the skies -- from a great technical tradition; generations of seafaring men who deployed sextants with confidence and traversed vast oceans without getting off course. Air force men looked to hedgerows to get their bearings. Navy men looked to mathematics. This was the noble calling of John Paul Jones, Farragut and Halsey. All Mother and I wanted to know was why membership in this club required a man to forswear asking directions at gas stations.
Dad planned a route that swooped down through Virginia, taking us to the battlefields and other momentous locales of the War Between the States, and glided up along the Blue Ridge before coming in for a landing on the gentle fields of Southern Maryland.
Trouble was once he left the planning for the action phase and got behind the wheel of his Buick, he might as well have been in the cockpit of his SBD; our vacation became an air race. Dauntless Dad set the speed record from the Land of Lincoln to the Old Line State and my experience of the great events that tore our nation apart was the Cliffs Notes of the Confederacy; I became expert at speed-reading historical markers. There's where Lee surrendereddddddddddddddddddd. There's where Stonewall Jackson lost his legggggggggggggggggggg.
As a special inducement to take my mind off Disneyland, my parents invited Cousin Patricia to travel with us. Patricia, who was breaking in new contacts, fell asleep on the long flight from Seattle to Chicago without removing the new lenses and irritated her eyes. Consequently, she made the road trip wearing medicated eye patches and did not see the Civil War in thirty-six hours, but only heard it. After one hundred years, the battlefields were understandably quiet affairs, so I interpreted the events for her between bouts of whining to my mother about the whole misbegotten journey as we caromed across the sleepy Virginia countryside in a Detroit bomber cruising at top speed on barrels of cheap gasoline.
This year I was determined to have a real vacation. I knew this would require strategy and an ally. My father could dismiss my wants, but while we were a traditional 60's family where the husband was the king of the household, Dad would have to bow to some of his spouse's wishes when planning our trip. Otherwise, he would get The Silent Treatment; a torture devised by adult females for turning a mensch into an appeaser faster than Chamberlin could hand over Poland.
Mother and I shared a love of fine hotels and gourmet restaurants, music and theater, while Dad loved nothing better than saving money. He took no pleasure in sleeping in a bed dressed in linen so fine it felt like butter, propped up on six eiderdown pillows, when he could find a motel running a sixteen-dollar-a-night special. Five courses of exotic food adorned with flowers or fish roe so precious he consumed each course in two bites could not compete with an all-you-can-eat buck and a quarter country buffet. When my mother made a point of expressing her desires, however, he would accommodate her and suffer through a five star experience. I was going to make sure she spoke her piece this year.
"Mom, I sent away for these brochures on Williamsburg." I plopped a mound of pamphlets in front of her place at the breakfast table.
"Oh, I haven't been there in years. I love the taverns serving food from colonial recipes, and the city is close to the James River plantations. I could see Berkeley and Carter's Grove again."
"Wouldn't that be great? I could visit the William & Mary campus; I'm still thinking I might apply there." I plucked a slim brochure from the stack and opened it for her.
"Have you ever been to the Williamsburg Inn?"
"I've been, but I've never stayed there. When we visited before, your father and I didn't have the kind of money to stay in a place like the Williamsburg Inn, so he took me there for a drink."
"Not even dinner?"
"No, just a cocktail."
"You have the money to stay there now."
"Yes, we do, and eat in the lovely dining room as well."
"I think Williamsburg should be our destination this year. It's only a little farther south than Dad usually goes. There are so many educational things to do there."
"And it would only be for a couple nights. Then we would head across the Potomac to visit Grandfather Russell and on up to Baltimore and my family."
"Dad can drive straight to Williamsburg without any extra stops as fast as he wants to go."
"Well, let's not condone his speeding, he needs no encouragement in that department, but I know what you mean."
The next morning everything was settled. I could not believe my ears; my plan worked, we were going to colonial Williamsburg and were to stay at the swanky Williamsburg Inn. My parents had one of those bedroom discussions and we were to lodge at the Inn for two nights and dine in the magnificent Regency dining room; my mouth watered picturing it even though I had just finished a stack of pancakes. I would take my Easter suit and patent leather French heels for the occasion.
School long ended, reservations made and bags packed with gifts for grandparents, good walking shoes for touring the colonial city and plantations and the navy blue Easter suit, I went to bed the night before our departure with the well thumbed brochure showing the candlelit dining room of the posh Williamsburg hostelry.
Not that Bloomington had any traffic, but when it came to cross-country drives, my father insisted on rising with the milkmen to get on the road before the commuters. To my mind, this should have meant seven-thirty -- or better yet why not let the commuters go to work and then we could leave, say around eleven -- but to Dad it meant four o'clock. There is nothing a teenager hates more than getting out of bed at an hour when with it people like John, Paul, George and Ringo are turning in.
"Even roosters won't get up for another two hours." I slammed the door of the Buick on our pitch-dark driveway.
"We'll have breakfast in Indianapolis." Dad backed the car onto empty Mercer Avenue.
"I didn't realize Indianapolis was known for its breakfasts. It's not Battle Creek you know."
"Sarcasm doesn't sit well so early in the morning," Mother warned from the shotgun seat.
I sank into drowsy silence, Mom was right; I had won the war and we were going to Williamsburg. No sense starting a useless skirmish and tarnishing my victory. I smiled and curled up on the long bench seat, which I had all to myself, because Cousin Patricia had declined our invitation this year. Sure, she was going to the Grand Canyon, but for once, I preferred my swanky destination to her dusty, acrophobic mule ride.
We broke fast at a coffee shoppe in Indianapolis and lunched in Dayton. Dad made good time into Lewisburg on the eastern edge of West Virginia, our destination for the night. He selected a clean, featureless motel across the highway from the HoJos. There were rooms available at the Howard Johnson motel adjacent to the HoJo restaurant, but they were three dollars more than the unaffiliated lodging he chose.
"Are you having the Indian pudding?" Mother perused the dessert offerings from behind a plasticized menu the size of Heston's tablets in the biblical screen epic.
"I certainly am." I pushed aside my dinner plate. "It's my favorite thing on the menu."
"Joe, what are you getting?"
"I'm having the sundae. I don't know how they do it for seventy-five cents. Three scoops and you can have multiple sauces."
"Not to mention the whipped cream and the cherry." I was determined to be cheery. We were staying in one of Dad's dumps even though we were minutes from the Greenbrier. When Dad had announced our route, I briefly considered lobbying for a night at the fabled grande dame of Southern resorts, but thought better of it. Let him have his way; tomorrow we would be luxuriating at the Williamsburg Inn.
As I shoved my hide-a-bed out of the way the next morning being careful not to catch the thin, yellowed sheets in the folding mechanism, I reckoned Dad could mess up one more meal before we were safely in the confides of the colonial city. This morning we were breakfasting at the home of friends in Roanoke, a slight detour but well worth it for Louise was a superb cook. Tonight we planned dinner at Chowning's Tavern one of the special restaurants on the grounds of the restored colonial capital. That left lunch somewhere between Charlottesville and Richmond. He would probably go for some fried chicken. Virginians know how to cook fried chicken. Or he might try to scare up some Smithfield ham, a local delicacy hard to come by in Illinois. We were home free.
"I'll load the car and drop the room keys at the desk. You girls just shut the door when you're done and meet me at the car." Dad juggled a suitcase under his arm so he could manage three in one trip and backed out the door.
"I wonder if there is a newspaper." Mother liked to read bridge columns.
"There was a stand by the office, but we're probably too early. You don't want to waste a dime on a day-old paper." The door clicked closed as Dad finished his sentence.
That was my family in a nutshell. Too early for the morning papers. I grabbed my makeup case and headed for the bathroom. Some Jergen's lotion and a dab of ponytail pink lipstick were the extent of my feminine preparations. Teasing my hair took longer than making up my face unless I had to deal with a pimple. Mother followed me into the bathroom coughing through the fog of hairspray I laid down to anchor my beehive. She puckered into the crazed mirror over the sink and I frowned as she swirled on the bright red lipstick, so forties; I would never be caught dead in such a shade.
In minutes we were in the car, our hand luggage tucked in around the larger bags in the trunk. Mother had to do without a paper, but we were off to Louise's and Jim's and the promise of homemade biscuits. I settled into my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
True to her reputation, Louise delivered biscuits with a cornbread bonus round. For lunch, Dad located a ma and pa grocery outside Charlottesville that sold both homemade ham sandwiches and fried chicken. I treated myself to orangeade out of their long metal cooler on the front porch, where two old men in overalls rocked amiably in paint-chipped chairs.
We reached Williamsburg ahead of schedule and my parents deposited me on the campus of William and Mary. We agreed to rendezvous at the bus stop after they shopped for antique church plates in Lightfoot, the next town over. It was a beautiful day, warm enough for the boxwood to give off that distinctive perfume that conjures buckled shoes and powdered wigs, but not so warm as to stain the underarms of my sleeveless blouse or drive the coeds from reading their summer session lessons on the lawn under the massive, leaf-choked trees.
Satisfied with my stroll and more convinced than ever that I would apply to the college's history department, I approached the bus stop. The Buick was parked across the street and as my father waved for me to cross; I noted the packages on the backseat. I also noticed my Mother had not turned to look at me and that she was sitting far over against the door on her side of the sedan.
"I picked up a catalog and an application package at the admissions office. This is definitely in my top three. Boy, I can hardly wait to check in to the Inn; my feet are killing me." I stuffed my materials behind the shopping bags so they would not fall off the seat.
"We're not going to the Inn." Mother spoke without turning her head as Dad pulled away from the curb.
"We're not going to stay at the Inn. We have decided that the rooms are simply too expensive. This is high season and they jack up the rates. I didn't think about that when I reserved," Dad turned onto the route out of the colonial district. "Fortunately, we were able to cancel because there was plenty demand and the clerk was able to rebook the room immediately."
"But you promised."
"Your Mother and I have discussed it. We'll still go to dinner there tonight, I booked a table while I was at the front desk, but it is silly to spend that kind of cash on a bed. We won't be in the room that long with all the sightseeing we'll be doing."
"Your father is going to pick out a nice motel on the outskirts of the historic area. We'll freshen up and go back to the Inn for supper." Mother's voice was distant, the sound of a droning insect at the far end of a sultry garden.
"It won't be the same. We'll look like rube tourists sneaking in to gawk at the real guests."
"We are tourists, Kathy." My father spoke absently as he scanned the vacancy signs peppering the shoulder of the hyper-commercial roadway that edged the historic district beyond the forested berm protecting the old city from neon and crass capitalism.
I slumped against the packages in the backseat. Once again, reason had triumphed over art, logic over pleasure, economy over culture. I was doomed to spend another night in a brandless motel and to have my enjoyment of the Regency dining room tempered by the smell of cheap soap on my body and the scuff on my patent leather shoes from the loose gravel in the motel's parking lot.
Although he did not deserve it in my way of thinking, Dad's hunt for a suitable bargain was rewarded beyond his wildest dreams. He pulled up to the office of the Traveler's Rest Motel, a brick veneer expanse of units with pea green shutters arrayed along a macadam parking strip just wide enough to keep a car's rear bumper from jutting onto the roadway. In the office window, a notice offered special weekday rates of $11.50 per night. Dad had never done this well.
Mother eyed the empty lot suspiciously. "Joe, maybe you should ask to see the room before you put down your money."
"Good idea. The price is almost too good to be true." Dad opened the car door. "Stay put. I'll check it out."
"I'm going with you." I bolted from the rear seat. If I could find something wrong with the accommodation, there might still be a chance for something better. A Best Western. Or maybe a Holiday Inn. Our rooms at the Williamsburg Inn were long gone, but I could still hope for a few creature comforts. White sheets you could not read a newspaper through. Toilet paper folded in a neat vee.
After a brief exchange with the desk clerk, my father emerged from the office with a key. We strolled down the row of identical units to number eight. Dad opened the door and switched on the light. Praying for a dead body or at least the sound of a hundred cockroaches running for cover, I was disappointed by a lackluster but clean, neat serviceable motel room. While my father checked the bathroom, I ran my fingers along the bureau hoping for grime or dust. I sat on the bed, but the springs did not squeak or sag. The room was furnished with two double beds so I would not have to sleep on a rollaway.
Dad returned from the bathroom. "Tub and shower. Plenty of towels." He paused at the TV and switched the set on. A western burst into life. He adjusted the rabbit ears and the image became sharp and snow free. "Well, I think we'll take it. You want to start bringing the bags in? I've got to go back and pay the guy."
I stared at my reflection in the mirror over the blond bureau. Where was Anthony Perkins with his butcher knife when you needed him? There was not a thing I could point to in this bland laminated polyester accommodation that would convince my father we needed to go elsewhere. "Sure thing, Dad."
We were seated at a window table in the Regency dining room overlooking a formal courtyard with a fountain of playful nymphs. Manicured espalier graced three stone walls protecting the garden and stately boxwood enclosed the fourth side of the refuge. We had waited there, my parents sipping cocktails and I a Shirley Temple, as our table was made ready. Now we studied leather-bound menus as our waiter shook out our commodious napkins and placed them in our laps.
"Oh, look, vichyssoise. I think I will start with that. And, Joe, they have Lobster Newburg." Mother tilted her menu so that another attendant could fill her water glass.
"Look at the prices. You'd think the seafood came from France and not the potato soup."
"Joe, we agreed we were going to have a nice evening. You got your way about the motel."
"Right. Right. You girls order anything you want."
I gave my father quite a start moments later when I asked the market price of the whole lobster before ordering the duck l'orange. Mother stuck with her Newburg and Dad ordered the crab cakes.
Once over the big entrée decisions we began to enjoy ourselves. A quartet played in the center of the high ceiling room, the musicians dressed in period waistcoats, knee britches and wigs. The wall sconces and table candelabra made everything shimmer, from the shoe buckles of the players to the elegant place settings to the jewels the diners wore. Mother treated herself to a glass of Chablis with her main course and my father refrained from comment. When the Baked Alaska was put before him he had to admit that the Williamsburg Inn had done HoJos one better.
The waistband of my Easter suit was stretched taut as a drum when we returned to our motel. Despite expelling every last ounce of air from my lungs, I had trouble getting enough space to unfasten the hook. Dad took a stroll to ease his stomach, giving us time to undress and use the bathroom before he took his turn.
There were enough bath linens as he noted during his earlier inspection, but I could not help comparing the coarse hand towels with the massive damask napkins we had enjoyed at the restaurant. Well, Cinderella, the witching hour has come and gone, the pumpkin has returned and you are back in Dullsville.
I slipped into my baby doll pajamas, grabbed To Kill a Mockingbird from my bag and plopped on the bed. The sound of Mother's gargling seeped through the hollow bathroom door and underscored Johnny Carson's monologue.
Dad returned from his walk glistening with sweat. Mother emerged from the bathroom in her gown and slippers carrying her makeup bag. There was not enough room in the utilitarian bathroom for any of us to leave our things. The toilet was not the kind that had a tank, the bare pipes jutted bruskly through the tile wall, and the sink was a pedestal model with only enough room for the soap well.
Dad removed his kit from one of the pockets on the military issue hanging bag he still used for traveling. "I'm going to take a shower before turning in."
"Don't forget your magazine." From years of marriage, Mother knew the shower would be followed by a long constitutional.
I tried to remember if the little window had been cracked open to release the inevitable fumes. Deciding it was too late for intervention, I returned to my book.
I was at the part of the story where Scout is watching the trial from the colored balcony of the courtroom. I must have dozed off, because the voice of Atticus started to sound like Johnny Carson. And the balcony started to shake. I began to breathe hard, my chest tightening. Maybe too many people were in the balcony and the whole thing was going to collapse.
My eyes opened and I sat up, not in the balcony, but in the double bed of the Traveler's Rest. My bed was moving. Mother's bed was moving. The television, rabbit ears vibrating, inched sickeningly close to the rim of the bureau. Mom's dresses, neatly hung on wire hangers along the closet pole, danced a jig all on their own. The cheap mirror, loosely attached to the back of the bureau, slapped against the wall as the chest groaned in time with the jingle of the tarnished little door chain. But one sound dwarfed all others, the roar of the approaching engine.
When the train came abreast of our room, the force of the air compressed in the narrow space between the locomotive and the backside of the motel shook the frame structure to its very foundations. The engine light was so brilliant it pierced the nail holes in the drywall carving up the room like tracer beams and knifing the dust sifting from the convulsing ceiling panels.
The massive engine and the shock of the first assault wave of pressure may have been the worst, but each passing car slapped the edifice with another thrust. The building would sag back only to be hit again. I lost count of the speeding cars, too dumbstruck to move from the bed as the roar continued. Then the engineer unleashed the diesel whistle. In the confined space, I thought the ear-splitting scream would liquefy my fillings.
Mother grabbed for the pillows, jabbed them over her ears and curled into a fetal position on the quaking bed. The perverse train jockey hung on the mournful chord, ringing every ounce of romantic longing out of it before relenting and speeding on to Richmond. My ears continued to ring even as the last car whooshed past the convulsing building and Mother's frocks settled into a gentle swing.
"My God, your father!" Mother flung the pillows aside and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Both of us turned to face the bathroom door. We had been sorely tossed by the tempest the train had wrought, but we were more than halfway across the room from the back wall; the bathroom was smack against the flimsy partition, almost on the tracks themselves that we now realized must be inches from the back of the motel. No wonder the rooms were so reasonable.
A wedge of light pierced the still settling dust as the bathroom door creaked open. My father shuffled into view. White as a sheet, his magazine clutched to his groin, his jockey shorts around his ankles, which bore a gray tinge from the dry wall dust, that had sifted down on them. His glasses, askew on the bridge of his nose were covered with soot. In a flash, I remembered opening the little window so that I would not steam up the room when I took my shower. Dad's forehead, cheeks and chest also were sooty. His thinning hair, which had not stood a chance against the gale force winds in the petite water closet were swept back and up like Elsa Lancaster's hairdo in the Frankenstein flick. Even his chest hair was parted.
I was lucky that Mother started to laugh first. Hers started as a giggle but when full throttle in moments. I rolled on the bed in hysterics. Miffed, the object of our ridicule started to throw his magazine at his wife, but realizing he was naked, hopped back into the bathroom to pull up his shorts, sending us into further fits of laughter.
Dad was able to recoup his advance for our second night at the Traveler's Rest. In the morning light, we viewed the track from the vantage point of our bathroom window revealing that if anyone had been foolish enough to extend an arm out the portal the previous night he would have lost a hand. After a pleasant day of touring the river plantations, we spent the night at The Williamsburg Holiday Inn.
There was only one more summer road vacation for our family before I went away to college and discovered other things to do with my summers like work. As he did on our return trip to Illinois after the Williamsburg incident, my father chose chain hotels. In return, we never discussed the night we were besieged in our beds by the B & O railroad because my father could not resist a bargain.
I did not attend William & Mary, but I did major in history. As with nation states, so it goes with families; diplomacy is as much about what you don't say as it is with what you make manifest.
My adult travels have taken me around the world. I have stayed at the Dorchester and the Beau Rivage, the Savoy and the Palace. I finally made it to the Greenbrier too. The succession of luxury rooms all fade together now, elegant appointments a vague memory, effete comforts forgotten, because I never laughed in any of them.
Katharine Russell is the author of three novels, the mystery A POINTED DEATH, which is the first book in the Pointer Mystery Series, the coming-of-age novel DEED SO, and the children's book BUDDY'S TAIL, a saga of some wonderful pooches that appeals to dog lovers of all ages.