Dec. 26 – While we travel far and wide, burning up nonrenewable resources at a prodigal rate in search of elusive truths about America, it’s strange how readily we ignore the history bubbling right beneath our feet.
In that vein, we visited Valley Forge National Historical Park today. In truth, we went only to secure badge No. 5 for our resident National Park Service junior ranger.
None of us had been here before, not really. Not one of us had set foot inside the well-appointed visitor center, which opened for business back in the bicentennial afterglow of 1978. Strange, particularly when you consider the story of Valley Forge draws more than four million visitors here each year.
We have lived in the park’s shadow all our lives. It lies neatly between the poles of our familial network here, seven miles from the Breslins’ house in Berwyn and 11 from the Wallingford outpost in rural Spring City.
In many ways that have little to do with history, we’ve been on intimate terms with this park forever. Last winter, for instance, we drove past the visitor center several times a week on the way to my sister’s radiation treatments in Philadelphia. (She’s doing much better now. Thanks for asking.) It never occurred to us to make a pilgrimage here.
Yet I could sketch the social history of my squandered youth without roaming beyond the park’s sprawling confines. It was always there, sitting fallow, waiting to be utilized when unbridled hormones seized control and demanded another ill-conceived escapade.
Valley Forge was the place you took your girlfriend to find a little privacy. It was the place you got drunk after the junior prom. It was the place you walked hand-in-hand, promising to love each other for eternity.
I went here often with my first girlfriend, the preacher’s daughter. One night we were caught in the cross hairs of a ranger’s flashlight while in a very embarrassing position.
Two decades later, Rhoda and I slipped away here on our unofficial first date. We ate hummus, drank wine and kissed while Johnny Cash sang “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.”
Not everything is as romantic as our memories would prefer.
Somewhere in the years between the in-the-backseat-with-the-preacher’s-daughter imbroglio and the egg-sucking-dog tryst with the future mother of my child, I walked the park’s gentle inclines, crunched over its permanent blanket of dead leaves and admired the turbulent water of Valley Creek while under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
While it was a first trip for high school buddies already out of college, symbolically it was a valedictory walk for our friendship.
Symbolism, it turns out, is what this place is all about. Thanks to the enduring work of 19th century historians, Valley Forge long ago cemented its status as go-to cliche for intolerable winter. It permeates our popular culture, right down to its chilled bones.
When Ralph Kramden refused to pay a $5 rent hike and had his heat shut off in the middle of a Brooklyn freeze, he boasted the following to Alice:
“I’m just like Washington at Valley Forge.”
Of course he was. In order to endure winter conditions like Washington’s 12,000 or so soldiers met at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78, you’d probably need a ticket to Omsk, Tomsk or Krasnoyarsk. Or at least Barrow, Alaska.
Here at Valley Forge, Washington’s Continental Army holed up for winter to lick its wounds after surrendering Philadelphia, its capital and largest city, to the British in the fall of 1777.
And suffer here they did, without qualification. Somewhere on the order of 2,000 men died. They didn’t suffer and die because the winter was so harsh, however. It wasn’t. Disease and death derived mostly from lack of provisions. Food and clothing, specifically.
The winter Washington’s army endured at Morristown, N.J., two years later was far more severe. So was the suffering. It was the worst winter of the war. Some say it was the worst of the century.
As German General Johann de Kalb wrote:
Those who have only been in Valley Forge or Middlebrook during the last two winters, but have not tasted the cruelties of this one, know not what it is to suffer.
Yet you’ll search in vain for any pop culture references to Washington at Morristown.
It was Valley Forge instead which developed into a triumphal symbol of perseverance, of patriotic defiance in the face of tyrannical weather conditions. And despite the ever-evolving story of Valley Forge bequeathed to us by historians, the myth prevails. It still holds sway in the popular imagination. And it prevails even here.
We watched the obligatory NPS documentary about the encampment at Valley Forge. The cinematography was replete with snowbound scenes. I didn’t think anything of it until the the narration, which was updated in recent years, included a note about the mild winter of 1777-78.
We walked out of the theater and practically ran into youthful ranger Doug Kershner. I noted the dissonance. He chuckled, nodded his head and said something about the persistent myth of the Valley Forge winter.
What are you going to do?
Persist it does. Doggedly. No sooner had I said goodbye to young master Kershner, who is leaving in a week to pursue a graduate degree in public administration at American University, then I found myself engaged in idle chit-chat with the nice woman at the gift shop cash register. Not surprisingly, the snowfall outside insinuated itself into the conversation.
“You get an idea of what they went through,” she said with a smile, “just by walking through the parking lot.”
The good thing about possessing a limitless storehouse of ignorance is you’re liable to learn something new every day. In addition to my lack of understanding about Valley Forge’s place in the political and social history of America, I had no idea that a significant archeological trove was uncovered hereabouts in 1871.
Miners struck a Pleistocene motherload while quarrying limestone at Port Kennedy, an old industrial settlement on the banks of the Schuylkill Canal.
More than 1,200 fossils were unearthed here, in what archeologists called the Port Kennedy Bone Cave, between 1871 and 1896. They include more than 48 animal and 14 plant species.
They are more than 750,000 years old. Among the fossilized beasts uncovered in a Great Ice Age sinkhole is the Lesser Short-faced Bear, aka Bulldog Bear. This monstrous behemoth stood 11-feet tall when erect and weighed in at roughly 3,500 pounds.
Pretty fascinating stuff.
If the awesome story of evolution, extinction and geological change dwarf the Valley Forge catechism, it goes largely unnoticed in the uplifting narrative of America. Valley Forge is, in essence, a story about the greatness of America.
The greatness of America, real or imagined, was nurtured here in the crucible of unfathomable suffering. As Thomas Paine wrote the year prior to Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge, nobility does not come without suffering. The greater the suffering, the purer the nobility.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered;
Yet we have this consolation with us:
That the harder the conflict,
The more glorious the triumph.
And thus was the Romantic notion of America conceived, birthed and nurtured in the mid-1800s.
The notion of American exceptionalism was given immortal voice by none other than Abraham Lincoln, normally the most measured and thoughtful of politicians.
Shortly after noting brilliantly how the dogmas of the quiet past were inadequate to the stormy present, Lincoln told Congress in 1862 the Civil War would decide whether “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
The last best hope of earth. Perhaps it rang true then. But it has become a burdensome albatross on the body politic, wielded with increasing disregard by politicians and demagogues with scant concern for the earth’s hopes.
The last best hope of earth. Six words. Poetic and powerful. In them is contained all the hubris necessary to lay a great nation low.
That we are the earth’s best and brightest is now an article of faith in the public discourse. Freedom has become the opiate of the masses.
Almost any exercise in tyranny can be sold to the public if the seller promises it will preserve, enhance or revive American freedom. It is our freedom the terrorists hate, and it is our freedom that immigrants came here to taste.
Freedom is why we have the world’s biggest military budget by a factor of five or greater. Freedom is why innocent children must die in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and you name it. Freedom is why the marginal tax rate on billionaires remains at laughable levels while the social safety net is cut away one strand at a time. Freedom is why assault weapons are out there for every aggrieved Norman Bates who wants one.
Whoops. I’ve wandered far afield of poor, old Valley Forge, which nobody seemed to care much about until the middle of the 19th century.
From there, Valley Forge rose out of the mist of history to become an enduring symbol of fortitude in the service of freedom. If threadbare, starving soldiers left their bloody footpaths here in calf-high snow, it was because tyranny’s defeat, and freedom’s consecration, required as much. What have you done?
Alas, not everyone was down with the sacrifice. Local farmers, whose fidelity to their own well-being outstripped their patriotic ardor, preferred to sell their produce and meat to the British, whose cash was far more reliable than the revolutionists Continental scrip.
And so it goes today, from Atlanta to Bangladesh. You hear a lot of talk from the more volatile precincts of the populace about the malignant nature of the federal government. From public education to the post office to the park service, our government has overstepped its bounds.
There is a movement afoot, and it shows no signs of abating. It is atavistic in nature. Many would place their faith in states rights in the effort to neuter federal institutions. Many would sell their own stake in self government to the first bidder, regardless how high the offer. Just to get the goddamn gummint off there backs.
It is instructive to note the relative privation soldiers faced at Valley Forge often derived from the willingness of their respective state governments to care for them.
Pennsylvania soldiers ranked among the worst off in Washington’s army. An entire force of 2,400 Pennsylvanians would engage in mutiny on New Year’s Day, 1781, after many of them had served three years for nothing more than their $20 signing bounty.
But there I’ve gone again and ruined a sweet little narrative about a trip to the local history factory with a disjointed flood of nasty political rhetoric.
Mea culpa, and Happy New Year!