Brush with history...
Donna got me up at 5:30 Friday, July 2nd to watch the sunrise
over the Atlantic. Donna and I walked to the beach together. It was beautiful,
with reds and oranges blazing across the sky. The sunlight over the water
was amazing. Just then, a squadron of pelicans flew in formation
one after another across the sunrise. Donna called them "the dawn patrol."
The one in the lead flapped his wings to gain altitude, and each bird behind
him followed in turn, the line of birds rising one by one into the morning
sky. It was beautiful.
We decided to go for a drive towards the north part of the island. It
was a bright, peaceful morning, the air crisp and clean. Traffic was light
that time of morning, and we pretty much had the road to ourselves.
After breakfast, Kim packed up her stuff for her early flight back to Omaha.
Dianne drove her, me, and Donna's folks off the island and back towards
Virginia. None of my family wanted to go back to that feared state. The
road took us onto a highway that wasn't marked on any of our maps. With
me navigating, however, I got us to the Norfolk Airport. Kim was a little
early. From the airport, I guided everyone through another tunnel, across
to Newport News. Following the directions, I directed Dianne off the expressway
and onto one of the atrerial streets. The Mariner's Museum was on the west
side of the road, and the entrance kind of snuck up on us. I didn't think
it was marked very well. The museum is in the middle of a park, with a
pond and lots of trees. Right next to the parking lot was a children's
playground, complete with a wooden ironclad playset --turret and
all-- for kids to play on. There was an admission charge, but I gladly
paid for everybody. The Mariner's Museum had something I'd looked forward
to seeing since we left Oklahoma: the remains of the USS Monitor.
||North of Duck, the island narrows to the width of a K- Mart parking
lot. We passed one line of houses along the road, which seemed to have
the best views on the island. In the back yard, the owners could watch
the sunrise over the ocean, and then watch the sunsets over the sound in
the front yard. Fewer neighbors to deal with, too. The island was too narrow
at that point for more than one row of houses.
There was a wild horse sanctuary on the north end of the island.
The brochures added that although there were about 90 of them, the horses
liked to hide out and might not be visible. They weren't. The road took
us to the Corolla Lighthouse, a charming brick tower amongst a neighborhood
of cottages and trees. It wasn't open yet, but we had fun getting out and
walking around the grounds. I filled up the car with gas and took us back
to the house.
I was in 6th grade, I read a book about the epic clash between the Union
ship Monitor and the Confederate ironclad Merrimac. I forget
who wrote it, but it stirred my imagination. Those ships changed naval
history, modern warfare and, subsequently, the fate of the world. If that
book had come out in 1860, it would have been called science fiction.
We were directed to one of the museum volunteers. He told us that if
we wanted to see the Monitor, we should do that first, because
it was Friday. The turret of the ironclad is kept under water over the
weekends, to help preserve it. They drain the tank on Mondays, and refill
it on Fridays. That way, the turret was on display most of the week. The
artifacts were kept outside, through a side door, in tanks next to the
museum. It's not just water in the tanks, but a combination of chemicals,
designed to dissolve the century of undersea growths as well as preserve
the artifacts. Some pieces, they said, would take 10 years to clean up...
but they were in no hurry. We saw the crankshaft, the engine, various tools
and boilers... and then, I climbed the steps of the last tank. At the top,
I stood on the platform, and looked down on the revolving turret of the
world's first modern warship: the USS Monitor. I was completely
thrilled! It was like I'd been waiting for that moment my whole life.
The tank was being refilled, but it looked like they had just started.
Sprinklers were spraying water carefully over the structure. Just then,
a worker in overalls climbed up from the other side of the tank. He pointed
to a lever just inside the guardrail, and asked me to pull it. So I did
--and I got to turn off the water valve for the Monitor! As I did,
I noticed my wedding ring was loose on my pinky finger, so I pulled out
my hand and rammed it onto my ring finger. (I could just see trying to
explain to Donna that my wedding ring went down with the Monitor!)
The worker climbed down a ladder into the tank, and presently a box of
debris was hoisted out from inside.
The guns were still inside the turret! I had no idea the guns were
still inside. If it was published anywhere, I certainly missed it. The
guns were huge, able to fire cannonballs 11 inches in diameter--
and those poor Union sailors were stuck inside right next to them. It was
a humid, scorching day, but I was in heaven. We went back inside, and viewed
the huge exhibit the museum had on the Monitor. Donna's dad liked
the schematics and models of the engines used on the ship. We saw its propeller
(huge!), its anchor, dishes and silverware used by the officers, and I
even got to touch a section of deck plating! The museum made an
effort to point out the Confederate ship the Monitor fought was
called the Virginia; the Merrimac was the ship's name before
it became an ironclad. They were very insistent about making that clear.
The exhibit had a comprehensive history of the two ships, the men behind
their design and operation, and the fates of the ships, neither of which
survived the year they fought. The Monitor sank in a storm off Cape
Hatteras, where she was recovered over a century later. The Virginia
ended up getting blown up by Confederate troops, so that it wouldn't fall
into Union hands. One of the guides told me the museum had plans to build
a partial scale model of the Monitor in the future, one that visitors
could walk through. People would be able to climb inside and experience
a simulated battle from inside the turret.
||This picture gives you an idea of the scale of the ship. One of the
researchers climbs down into the turret of the Monitor to recover
artifacts and debris.
The rest of the museum was huge, with rooms of exquisite model ships, exhibits
on the Titanic, signal flags, submarines, and the history of maritime
exploration. Dianne and Donna's folks were very pleased with the museum,
and seemed to have a great time. Yeah, I got a little fanboy about the
place, but I loved it. I was a little disappointed in the gift shop, although
I did find a Monitor t-shirt. If they sold patches, I thought they'd
clean up. We headed back to Duck, passing huge ships anchored at Newport
News, and back through the tunnel/bridge we used going to the island. We
returned to the house about 5 PM.
That was our last evening on the Outer Banks. It was time to get ready
for the trip home. Donna was going to make hard-boiled eggs for the trip
back, but they got burned, so we had to go get another dozen. After supper,
Donna and I walked down to the beach to say goodbye to the Atlantic. The
week had just flown by. The beach was peaceful, and almost deserted,
the tide gently rolling waves up onto the sand. I could tell I was going
to miss the ocean, the smell of the sea, the sound of the surf... That
evening, everyone did laundry, cleaned up and packed. We had a big day
ahead of us.
|That's me, outside the Mariner's Museum in Newport News. The big, white
tank behind is where they are storing and preserving the turret of the
Monitor. Do I look like I'm having a good time?
All original content copyright 2004 (c) by Tim Frayser