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.

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.

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.
When 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.
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 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.
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? 
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.
Day 1 -- Day 2 -- Day 3 -- Day 4 -- Day 5 -- Day 6 -- Day 7 
Day 8 -- Day 9 -- Day 10 -- Day 11 -- Day 12 -- Day 13 
 All original content copyright 2004 (c) by Tim Frayser