Oh, say can you see?

I had a marvelous time in Virginia with Katie and Josiah last weekend.  I so enjoyed getting to spend some time with each of the them, and we did all kinds of neat and relaxing (and some not so relaxing!) things, but one of the highest points for sure was Katie’s and my Saturday excursion.

She had told me that she had a day trip planned, but that she wasn’t going to tell me where we were going; just that we’d have about an hour and-a-half drive each way and we’d be outside for a few hours.  This was all fine with me.  I like drives and I like being outside, so even though it was going to be something like 93 degrees, I was great.  I prepared by wearing shorts and a T-shirts, strapping on my belt bag, and bringing a water bottle.

We left home around 9:30 AM and shortly before 11:00 AM found ourselves in Baltimore.  Now, I have only been to Baltimore two other times in my life.  The first one was to fly into the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) at something like 11:00 PM last November, when I spent Veteran’s Day with Katie, and my second visit to Baltimore was to fly back out on a red-eye flight a few days later.  BWI is 90 minutes from Katie’s house, and Dulles (IAD) is 15, so although I don’t remember the details, I am guessing that we used BWI because one of us had a free flight there.  (Our family flies free whenever possible, even thought free is sometimes less convenient.)  Both of those airport runs last year had obviously been in the dark of night, so I had never really seen Baltimore till last weekend.  I will say that we saw LOTS and LOTS of Baltimore last weekend, but that is fodder for another post.

The point is that when we passed an exit for the Baltimore airport, I began to wonder why on earth were we in that fair city, anyway?  After all, if you’re not getting on a (free) plane, why would anyone want to go to Baltimore?  Then, while I was pondering that, Katie’s Garmin sent us left under some major overpass, and I happened to spy a little brown sign that said “Ft. McHenry.”  And oh, my goodness, I started to cry!

You see, our family has a bit of history with that place, even though we’ve never been there.  At Silver Dollar City, for a number of years, “Miss Bonnie Jean” did a presentation at the old schoolhouse about the battle of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The kids and I would go and sit in the schoolhouse and listen to her dramatic telling of that tale.  She had researched the whole thing and had written the script herself, and she was a passionate story-teller.  It always brought tears to my eyes, and I cried for real when she retired due to health concerns.

I think all the kids enjoyed Miss Bonnie Jean’s presentation (or maybe they just tolerated it and faked me out), but Katie and I really loved it.  It was always one of the high points of our visits to the City.  Having heard it so many times, I knew the story well, but now I looked (through tears) at Katie as she whipped her car through the back roads of industrial Baltimore, and I realized that she was taking us to the very place where it all happened!!!  How cool was that?!?!?

After paying an admission fee, we were free to watch a short video on the Battle of Baltimore (the maps and explanation of who was where doing what when was very helpful) and tour the grounds of the fort itself.

Our timing was such that a ranger-led tour was about to start, and we do appreciate a good ranger-led tour.  Our guide was very personable and energetic, and she explained everything clearly and answered questions from some of the guests.  I was impressed by her knowledge not just of the stuff she was explaining on the tour, but of the history surrounding the whole Battle of Baltimore and War of 1812 issues.  We later spoke with her privately and learned that she had nearly completed a doctorate in history.  WOW!  That woman clearly knew her stuff.

Our tour ended at the site of some naval cannons that had been used to defend the fort during the battle.  There were about four of them, situated in a line on a small bluff, facing the river.  Let me see if I can remember. . . at that point, the pertinent body of water was the. . . was it Petabsco. . . ?  Oh, I’ll have to look it up.  Let’s see.  Well, wikipedia says it was Patapsco River (I was close!), and the fort is on a point of land very close to where it empties into Chesapeake Bay.

So these cannons are all lined up, and our guide informs us that we are going to participate in a (mock) cannon demonstration.  How fun!  She said that one some days the rangers actually do fire the cannons, but that when guests do the demonstration, we go through all the motions but don’t actually fire them.  She recruited people from the audience to do each of the tasks, which included, but were not limited to:

~ sponging the gun (with a really long mop-on-a-stick kind of thing, to make sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be)

~ putting in the charge (bag of gunpowder) and shoving it down in there

~ covering the vent hole (to keep oxygen out till the crucial moment)

~ putting in the ball (which weighs 14 pounds!)

~ using ropes and pulleys to move the cannon forward into firing position

~ puncturing the gunpowder bag and inserting the fuse

~ lighting the fuse

~ using different ropes to pull the cannon back, in order to

~ repeat the same process over and over again every two minutes!

I was a minor rope-puller, and it took our team about ten minutes to execute the full series of steps, so the British probably would have blown us to smithereens while we attempted to get our routine down pat.  But I really found the whole thing fascinating – although standing out there in the heat I think I sweated away at least three pounds.

After the cannon demo, we were free to wander through the fort.  We got to see where all the ammunition was stored, lots of amazing brickwork, and a huge brick building where gunpowder was stored.  (Its walls and ceiling were so incredibly thick that the powder room – ha! – only occupied 1/10 of the structure’s total volume.)  We saw enlisted men’s quarters and officers’ quarters and the actual crossbeam that had originally supported the flagpole out in the yard.  That crossbeam was quite large and sturdy, in order to keep the flagpole – THE flagpole where THE star-spangled banner had flown during the battle – from falling over.  It had been buried underground and was only discovered and unearthed by archeologists in (I think) the 1950s.  Amazing.

We were kind of killing time, doing all this wandering around, between the end of the cannon demo and the beginning of the flag change some forty minutes later.  See, there was an enormous flag flying on the flagpole in the yard, and we had been told that a guide was going to give a talk on the flag, so we were eager to experience that.  It was an older gentleman who was going to do the talk, and we were keeping our eyes on him, but at the scheduled time of the presentation, disappeared into one of the fort buildings and went upstairs.  What was going on?  Where did he go?  What was he doing, and when would he come back?

Well, in just a minute or two, he came back out carrying a heavy, triangularly folded flag.  And he hollered for everyone one to, “Well, come ON!  Come on and help me!”  So we followed him out into the yard and he handed the flag to the half-dozen or so of us standing there and told us to unfold it.  As we worked on that task, it became obvious that the flag we were unfolding was very, very big.  It had 15 stars and 15 stripes and was, in fact, a replica of the same flag that flew on that very flagpole during the battle in 1814; a replica of THE flag that Francis Scott Key was straining to see!  As we kept unfolding it, more and more people gathered around to help.  I got to hold one corner of it, and believe me, I was not about to let it go!

We all worked hard to keep the whole thing taut and off the ground.  Once we had it all stretched out, he had us walk around with it 180 degrees to get it properly lined up to put on the line.  We walked it over close to the pole, and a couple people got to actually clip it to the line that would hoist it.  The whole thing was just so very, very exciting!  Then one of the guests got to lower the existing flag halfway, and then ours was hoisted up!  The old flag was brought down, and our team unclipped it and worked carefully for quite a while to get it folded lengthwise a bunch of times and then triangularly folded, as is fitting for American flags.  Katie and I helped with that folding.  = )

It was all terribly patriotic and made me almost tremble with excitement.  To think that I have actually helped change the flag at Fort McHenry!!!  It was one awesomely terrific experience – super memorable and meaningful.  I think Miss Bonnie Jean would’ve been proud.


1 Response to “Oh, say can you see?”

  1. 1 servantofthesecretfire September 8, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    YAY! I am SO glad you enjoyed it so much, and of course that you provided a blog post to immortalize the occasion. 🙂

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