Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vacation Part I - Montpelier

For the first time that I can ever recall, I took 2 weeks off in the same summer. You may recall from a previous posting that my family went to Ocean City, Maryland for a week in July. The scenery was wonderful!

I get 5 weeks of vacation each year and every year I get into November with about 2 weeks of vacation left. So this year I decided to take time off in the summer when it's warm and my kids are home from school. What a novel idea!

So this year I thought the best way to torture my family would be to take a week off and drag them kicking and screaming to some historical places. I planned a vacation to Charlottesville, Virginia. My wife wasn't too resistant to the idea. She actually planned the lodging. She decided that it would be fun to go camping.

Now, my idea of camping is certainly different from her thinking. I went camping as a kid and we slept in a tent and cooked food on a propane stove. We showered in dingy community showers that had lots of spiders. Her idea of camping is a 2 bedroom log cabin with a minifridge. She was somewhat reluctant because the cabin did not have indoor plumbing.

We left on Sunday morning and I convinced my wife to drive. She's a horrible passenger and must watch everything I do and monitor signs on the road (despite the fact that she's a horrible navigator and has no idea if we're going north or south (or east or west)). I, on the other hand, can read, sleep, talk, whatever, while she drives. So I read my book on Oppenheimer.

It took about 2 1/2 hours to get to Orange, Virginia, just outside of James Madison's home of Montpelier. For those of you from Baltimore City public schools, James Madison was the fourth President of the United States. We stopped at Hardees for lunch because, duh, it's a Hardees. Who doesn't love a Hardees cheeseburger?

After lunch we head to Montpelier. Now, don't be confused. Montpelier is also the capital of Vermont. We did not go to Vermont. Montpelier is the estate name for James Madison's home. The house is on a large estate complete with woods and a horse race track. As we are driving up the way to the parking lot, we see the stately and majestic brick Georgian house near the top of the hill.

We purchase our tickets for the tour and are led to a small amphitheater where a short movie is shown. After the movie the tour guide asks us if anyone has ever been to Montpelier. An old man raises his hand. She asks him how long ago he was here. He says, "Three weeks ago." "Well, not much has changed in 3 weeks, sir!" We all laugh.

I notice that we are the youngest family in the tour by at least 60 years. This is not good. Several guests are on Rascals. Nearly all of them are wearing cataract glasses. (did you hear that Kim Jong Il went to the eye doctor and was complaining about his eyes? His doctor gave him an examination and said, "You have cataracts." "No!" Shouted Kim Jong Il. "I have Rincoln Continentals!"

So anyway, we start making our way to the house. I learn that the house was originally built by James Madison Sr., our President's father. James Jr. adds on and the 2 families live there together. After Sr passes away, Jr owns the house. After he becomes President, he adds 2 wings to the house and the front portico.

Before we enter the house one of the guests asks if the house was every occupied during the Civil War. Instantly several centurions' ears perk up and they start verbally jockeying for position. In your thickest Virginia accent (pronounced 'Vah-gin-ya') "Well, my great-grandfather was in the 165th Infantry Division under General Whitestead (madeup) and he was stationed over in Bourbonsville outside of Orange County and blah blah blah..." Another volleys back, "My great-grandfather worked for the Southern Railroad and they blah blah blah..." Only to be digged and returned over the net with a, "the bricks were forged in the East Mecklenburg foundry using clay from Appomattox using the blah blah blah..."

If ever you wanted absolute esoteric information, this was the group for you. My wife's eyes are spinning. My son keeps asking me why these guys are so old.

Finally we tour the house. There is no furniture, paint, tapestry, or wall coverings. We are informed that the structural renovations were just recently completed and tours just begun. However, the plaster takes 18 months to cure, so the house will not be furnished for another 2 years. Ah - an excuse to come back! She does tell us that Chief Justice John Roberts (you know the Supreme Court guy that the liberals said was going to tear all of our civil rights away and return blacks to slavery? How's that going for you?) is going to rededicate the house in September and that we are all invited. I'm sure it will be a small gathering of the great-grandchildren of the men of the 165th Infantry of the Confederacy.

The house is actually really pretty inside. Madison had a knack for architecture, much like you see with most houses from that era. They are not the cookie-cutter McMansions on a quarter-acre with the obligatory Japanese maple tree on the corner of the house of the current era. There is much detail in the windows, doors, bricks, and trimmings. I took about 50 pictures in the house, only to hear Lt. Commander Old Guy ask the tour guide if pictures will be allowed once the furniture is restored. She says in fact that pictures are not allowed now, but she was turning a blind eye. Meanwhile, Ethel, Mildred, and all the other cataract-glasses-wearing old ladies are eyeing me in disdain.

What I find most interesting about the house is the changes that were made by the subsequent owners, most notably the DuPont's, yes the famous DuPont's of the Delaware chemical company. When Madison died, the house was 12,500 sq ft - slightly larger than my own garage. After the DuPont's made some minor renovations, the house totalled 39,000 sq ft. Yes, you are reading this correctly. 39,000 square feet. I could fit my house in that house 20 times. To make matters worse, the brick was overlayed with pink stucco. How ugly!

Fortunately, when the last DuPont passed away in the 1980's (I think), her will stated that she wanted the house retored to the Madison's original house. The house was bequeethed to some National Historic Trust. Thus far they have spent $23 million to renovate the house. That's almost the same amount of money that Baltimore City Public Schools spends per student each year. That's a lot of money!

Meanwhile as the tour progresses, my children are bored to tears. However, I must give them credit. They did not complain too loudly, did not run around, and were very well behaved. Great-aunt Betty came up to my wife and complimented their behaviour and asked if she could give them some candy. My wife said that was fine. Out of her over-sized purse she pulled a glass dish with a bunch of hard candy, but they were all stuck together, so she just gave them Life Savers instead.

We toured independently for the next hour or so and spent another half hour in the gift shop. I purchased some books (imagine that) and got my son a Civil War cap and my daughter got a spoon. I convinced her that she could collect spoons from each of these places and she could put them in a shadow box. She took a liking to the idea. Plus it's fairly cheap. Each spoon usually costs $5-$10.

After leaving the gift shop, my son dons the Civil War cap. He asks me what I think. At the same moment we are passing a group of the Sons of the Confederacy. I tell my son, "Your hat's nice. But why did you pick the hat from the side that got their ass kicked by the Union?" Fortunately for me, the volume must have been turned down on their hearing aides. I can't imagine that I'd make it out of south-western Virginia alive after that comment. Thus our tour of Montpelier ended.

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