Tales from the Crypt
We're in the visitor parking lot at the US Naval Academy here in Annapolis. The sole purpose for coming here today is to see the crypt of naval commander John Paul Jones, the famous Revolutionary War hero whose words, "I have not yet begun to fight" are so often quoted. The crypt is located in the basement of the Chapel here on campus. (It's called a "chapel" but it's more like a cathedral -- an enormous domed structure that is seen for miles around.)
The story of how this crypt came to be built, and how John Paul Jones's fate ended up entombed here is a fantastic tale. The story goes back to 1896 when the chapel was being designed. The designer was an ardent admirer of John Paul Jones. In his plans for the chapel, he included a domed vaulted crypt for this great Revolutionary War hero, should his remains ever be found. At the time the chapel was being built John Paul Jones had been dead 100 years, and no one knew where his body was buried; however, many assumed his remains were somewhere in Paris. How Jones ended up living out his final years in Paris is another interesting story having something to do with the French appreciating his heroic skills greater than his fellow countrymen had, and bestowed upon him the honors he deserved, but was denied at home.
But back to the story . . . In 1899, three years after the chapel was completed with its empty crypt, the US Ambassador to France, General Horace Porter, began what would become a personal, six-year search for the body of John Paul Jones. After many cemetery visits and fruitless excavations, Porter's perseverance finally paid off. Jones's coffin was found in an ancient Paris cemetery buried beneath a more recent coffin. Experts were called in to verify that the coffin belonged to Jones and that its contents was indeed Jones's body. This task was made easier due to the extreme care with which the body had been buried, keeping the corpse amazingly well-preserved. Whoever buried John Paul Jones took great care. His body had been tightly wrapped in straw, to avoid any movement, and his limbs had been wrapped in tinfoil. (Note: shortly after an article appeared about the discovery of Jones's well-preserved body, tinfoil became the popular way to preserve leftovers.) Anyway, in 1906 Jones's newly found body was transported from Paris to Annapolis via a squadron of US warships, and none other than President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, delivered the principal address at the commemorative services. In 1913 John Paul Jones was at last laid to rest in a sarcophagus of Royal Pryenees marble donated by the French Government.
Hearing of this incredible tale, I desperately wanted to see the dream that had taken so long to materialize. But today is blustery cold. The wind is whipping off the water and beating my desire into submission. In the warm cockpit of the truck we review the campus map, which shows the crypt to be a long walk from the parking lot. "How bad do I really want to see this crypt?" I wonder. Timidly, I open the passenger's door and the wind steals it from my grasp, tearing it violently as though it could rip it from its hinges. Quickly I tighten my grasp on the door handle and close the door tight again. Sitting in the comfort of Ruby's Captain's chairs, again I wonder, "How bad do I really want to see this?" But I recall one of John Paul Jones's famous quotes, "I intend to go in harm's way." So off I go into "Harm's Way." It's the least I can do to pay tribute to this ancient mariner. Outside, our flimsy coats are buttoned tight. My meager cotton scarf is double-wrapped around my head. Ken and I run with our eyes pinched tightly against the prevailing wind. Only a slit is open to find the way. Hurriedly, we enter the first door we see. It's a side door to the chapel which, as luck would have it, leads directly to the basement.
The thick wooden door closes behind us, shutting out the violent noise of the wind and making the silent basement seem all the more eerie. An old, faded sign points to the Crypt of John Paul Jones. The sign seems faded, and I hesitate now, wondering if perhaps the crypt is not open to the public anymore. The reason I doubt the sign's veracity is that it's a tiny little sign, it's typeface is old, and there is no one else in the place following its directive. Not a soul. Surely there would be other tourists here. Ken, ever braver than I, pursues his way in the direction of the crypt. We pass through a small chapel-within-a-chapel, and open yet another big, black, thick wooden door beside the altar. The door creaks loudly in this hollow chamber. Suddenly we are in a modern corridor that looks like it leads to administrative offices. Somehow I just don't think we're supposed to be here. Ken persists. I, on the other hand, coward that I am, ever fearful that the "authorities" will discover my intrusion and admonish me, want to turn around. Ken pulls me by the hand. "C'mon." At the end of this modern corridor is another old, black wooden door with an ancient doorknob. No more signs say anything about any crypt. I really, really, really want to leave. Ken tugs on the thick door. C-R-E-A-K! It opens slowly to a circular cobalt blue room, dimly lit, and as quiet as a padded cell. A polished cadet in full uniform jumps from his post in alarm. Our entrance has scared the daylights out of him. Evidently we've used an entrance no longer in use. This unfortunate cadet had been guarding the "official" entrance that normal tourists use and our unauthorized entrance frightens him. So here's the poor cadet guarding a tomb, (scary enough) listening to a howling wind outside as he sits alone in this dark blue room, guarding the coffin of a man who's been dead for 207 years. This young guard has his ear trained on the door beside him, listening for the noise of "proper" tourists. Suddenly the big old door on the other side of the room -- where he's not expecting any movement -- creaks open, and he jumps with fright at our imposition. His voice quivers a bit when he asks, as nonplused as possible, if we're here to view the tomb. His eyes rove over our joint appearances that reveal our innocent, expectant faces and tourist garb. He visibly relaxes. "No these two dolts aren't a menace." His eyes say. "Just stupid." After the embarrassment dissolves, Ken and I walk the circular room, viewing the coffin and the artifacts pertaining to John Paul Jones's life. We learn quite a bit about his life, his struggles, and the honors he received from foreign governments. The cool blue tones give the room a serene, soothing, heavenly affect. The lighting over the tomb appears like a halo. It's a fabulous place. I'm glad I braved the wind to visit this glorious tribute to this seafaring hero.
At Baltimore's popular Inner Harbor today we are fortunate to find a parking space directly in front of the Visitor Center. Okay. Now we can get all the info ahead of time, rather than walking aimlessly as we usually do. But the Visitor Center is locked up tight. A peek through the windows reveals an empty, lifeless room. No display tables. No racks of brochures. No posters. Nothing. Well, it is winter. Perhaps it's only a seasonal outpost. So we do our usual bit, walk aimlessly looking at people and things. We walk among throngs of Saturday shoppers loading up on fresh produce and meat in the 18th Century Broadway Market, while tourists hop in and out of gift shops, restaurants and bars. On the sidewalks we pass street minstrels, purple-haired teens, bikers and boat captains. This is a bustling waterfront of wharves, boats, rowhouses and warehouses. Kinda campy, kinda ultramodern. We pass a storefront that is tiny, really, a mere closet of a shop. Outside the door we can't tell what the heck they're selling. It looks like some kind of recruitment office, like they might sell timeshare property or something. An itsy bitsy sign says "Visitor Information." Uh-uh. We've fallen into that trap before. A lot of unscrupulous businesses put out signs saying "Visitor Info" only to lure in dumb, dumbfounded tourists and give them a relentless sales pitch on tour buses or timesharing. We've learned to enter only those Visitor Info establishments with the official blue sign. But . . . hmm . . .they do have maps. Let's steel our minds, vault our credit cards and go in. We'll just get the info we need and say NO to any sales pitch. We enter the closet-sized room, eager to grab a map and get the heck out. But the old man behind the counter is well-trained. "Sign the Guest Book, please." He announces as he shoves the book toward us on the counter. (What a ploy!) Now we must go up to the counter to sign the book as he watches, his pen-clad hand extended, waiting for the fish to come to his hook. We know that as we approach the counter and take his pen, we'll be caught, forced to listen to the well-rehearsed spiel.
But it's not a spiel at all. It is an official Visitor Center. The old man (who looks like the "Radar" character from M*A*S*H, but with 30 years tacked on), passes us the pen and asks how he can help us. I volunteer that we went to the other Visitor Center but it was closed. His sweet demeanor suddenly turns sour. He is highly offended by my remark. "It's not closed." He yells at me like a schoolmaster to a dunce. "It just hasn't opened yet! It's brand new. I'm waiting for them to open it so I can move out of here." (Geez. Sorry.) He recovers from his obvious over-reaction and tries to answer our questions as best he can, which isn't very good. Three times I catch him misinforming us. The info he provides contradicts with the little bit of info I had previously collected on my own. When I question him for clarification, to see if my brochures are misprints, he gets angry again and immediately decides not to help us anymore. Pointing vaguely to some brochures on the side of the wall, he dismisses us to the racks.
Relieved to be free of this volatile man, we go to the racks. As we investigate the info, I notice other people entering the room timidly as we had done. They all wear the same apprehensive expression, fearing they will be trapped in this tiny room, pinned by an aggressive salesman. As each person enters the room, the old man insists they sign the guest book. "Sign the book, please" is the mantra of the day. Some people try to ignore him, but when they do he practically jumps over the counter to nab them, returning them to the counter and getting them to sign the book. While occupied with another visitor, one woman runs in, grabs a map and returns safely to the sidewalk. (So she thinks). He spies her ruse and races out the door after her. "Please, madam. Sign the guest book," he says as he ushers her back into the office. The game is fascinating to watch, a tug-of-war between people trying to avoid the guest book and *Radar* pursuing them with the determination of a mad dog. Another woman with a young girl comea in and outright refuses to sign. "No. I will not sign the book." She says flatly. Radar is appalled. "Please. Just sign the book," he says desperately. "No." she replies defiantly. "I haven't even used your services." The old man is at a loss. "Please." He whines. "It's the only way I can justify keeping the place open." I feel that familiar heartstring being pulled. Now I feel sorry for him. This unfortunate man has an occupation that rests solely on the number of people who sign his Guest Book.
The Stars & Bars
Going to Fort McHenry today -- not because of any great need to see it (we've seen enough forts to fill a scrapbook) -- but because we feel we "should" see it. After all, Fort McHenry is where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write our national anthem, and since we're here in Baltimore, we should see the site where the rockets had "red glare" and the bombs had "burst in the air."
As we pull into the long driveway I bear an inner dread to get this obligation over with, viewing another fort, another row of cannons, lookouts and redoubts. At the Visitor Center, though, I'm relieved to learn that a film will be showing in 10 minutes. I relax a bit, just as I had done in Junior High School when a film would be shown instead of a lecture. The film begins quietly and mounts in suspense. It's absolutely compelling. Right away I'm intrigued at the information available, that is often missing in history books. The War of 1812 is rarely given much emphasis in history books, sandwiched as it is between the two greater chapters of America's early history, The Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Few people discuss the War of 1812. Few debate its battles as they do the other two wars. And, I remember when I taught this subject, the students disbelieved me when I told them that Washington was sacked and the White House was burned in that war. "What!" They would cry in unison. "The White House was burned by the enemy? No Way!" But enough of that. Back to the film here today. The National Park Service, as always, does a wonderful job of presenting the battle. The story is filled with gripping suspense. And even though I know the outcome, I sit in the dark theater, accepting the facts, yet my heart is beating fast. I'm on the edge of my seat, rooting for America. "C'mon America, you can do it!" I repeat silently. "C'mon, c'mon., c'mon." The film ends, the national anthem plays and the crowd stands while full length curtains are drawn from a wall of windows, sweeping open in a flourish to reveal an enormous American flag flying outside, in all its glory and splendor against an aqua sky. Involuntarily, tears stream down my cheeks and I'm embarrassed to create such a maudlin display of patriotism, but, the movie, the suspense, the heroism, the down-to-the-wire victory all well up inside me at once, and SWOOSH . . .out come the tears. But I'm not alone. The entire audience is teary-eyed, even the group of German tourists in the back row, all sheepishly daubing at their eyes as they march up the theater aisle and outdoors onto the grounds of the fort, the home of the brave.