01 September 2009

Awesome Virginia Adventure

It is my first grown up one-on-one with my youngest. A newly minted 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Andrew is working for the Army this summer, waiting for his final two training courses before taking up his duties as a supply officer, and his post (Fort Knox). A Southwest Airlines voucher with a ticking deadline, and an urgent need to get in a bit more vacation, and an opening in Andrew's schedule, came together for a great 3-day trip to the South.

I arrived in Norfolk, just barely ahead of the convergence of 3 storm fronts - a tropical storm coming up the coast, rain from north Georgia, and the Great Lakes storm system that I left ahead of from Midway. So I deplaned in sunshine and wind, and ended up driving in or through heavy rain and thunderstorms - north out of Norfolk past Williamsburg and Jamestown, around the bay toward Richmond. When I arrived at the hotel, just outside Petersburg, it was hot, muggy, and with some vestige of storm remaining. We chose to stay indoors for the night!

The hotel sports bar had a pretty decent sandwich option, so Andrew and I sat down with Lt. Diaz, and I got an earful about Army life. It got late, and I headed off to bed after we agreed to meet at the hotel breakfast the next morning.

Though hot, the breakfast was standard complimentary hotel fare. Solid calories for the start of the day. Fueled, we set out for my introduction to Fort Lee. Andrew had collected me from my room, with a map in hand and questions about what I wanted to see. Two things struck me kind of funny - 1) that he didn't have something that he particularly wanted to show me [to be fair, the building he reports to each day was closed on Saturday], and 2) that the map he had was from the hotel's rack of brochures with local information. So much for high level of security. Andrew had collected me from my room, with a map in hand and questions about what I wanted to see. Two things struck me kind of funny - 1) that he didn't have something that he particularly wanted to show me [to be fair, the building he reports to each day was closed on Saturday], and 2) that the map he had was from the hotel's rack of brochures with local information. So much for high level of security.

I can't say I've ever been on an Army base, so obviously I had no point of reference for what I would see. Aside from checking our ID at the front gate - well, OK, back up ... apart from having to stop at a front gate, this base, at least, is pretty much like an expansive college campus. And what do I know? These days, maybe there are college campuses that have all traffic stop at front gates, and check IDs. Beyond the gate, nicely kept blacktop roads, with a wide assortment of diverse building types and uses. And while the base is laid out clearly, I was surprised that it isn't in a grid pattern.

Some of the buildings are quite new and modern. A few are very strictly functional in appearance. I had asked, tongue in cheek, about getting into the officers' club - and got the recent history of that institution as my answer about why we wouldn't be popping in there. But I really did want to see the PX, so we went there, and I bought a couple of small items. Yeah, it isn't what I thought from TV shows and movies; it is a lot like an American big box store. Which, of course, it is, in spades.

We also spent time in the Quartermasters Museum. Andrew is in the quartermaster corps, and Fort Lee is the HQ for that branch. I learned more than I imagined in this small museum ... interesting, well designed, and I left with a much greater sense of what A. might be doing over the next four years.

Adjacent to Fort Lee is the Petersburg Battlefield national monument. The nearby city of Petersburg was laid seige to in 1864, and it lasted for something like 9 months, into 1865. The fields in the area still have evidence of siege works, trench warfare, etc. And the battleground monument is very nicely kept and signed. I knew I'd be in Civil War land, of course, but visiting a site like this was not on my radar when we planned this visit. Bonus!

Later on Saturday, we drove up to Richmond. I like to drive, and to explore while driving. That doesn't always make passengers comfortable, and it isn't always a good idea in unfamiliar cities. My basic assumption about river towns like Richmond (Appotomax) is that the higher up the bank, the nicer the neighborhoods. Well, in Richmond at least it still matters which side of the river, and which side of the expressway! We saw plenty of the seedy side of town before finally stumbling into, first the modern rich part of town, then later ante-bellum Richmond. Would that I had found ante-bellum - indeed, Colonial! - Richmond first. I think we would have walked a bit. Evidence that we were in Patrick Henry territory there.

Before sunset Andrew and I set out for a short run, back in the battlefield park. The sun set on our approximately 3-mile run, complete with a large herd of deer grazing at the remains of "Fort Stedman." (The number and close proximity of the various "forts" of this battle area was a huge surprise to me. I am obviously ill-educated historically and militarily!)

Saturday ended with us sharing a college-guys supper/snack in Andrew's room, watching Muppet Show episodes on his computer. And I can't say just how nice and satisfying that was!

Sunday was relaxed, though clouded (metaphorically) by the return trip, memory of the terrible traffic getting out of Norfolk, and wondering if I would not in fact be as well off (and happier) taking the apparently longer, more rural route back to Norfolk Airport. As Andrew still has a college-like sleeping pattern, I had ample time to read, have breakfast, pack and relax before we hit the road.

We drove into Petersburg, and again I felt like this is a town worth coming back to and exploring. Very ante-bellum, and a river-town to boot! Not a lot to see, and not all that is seen is worth looking at. But I would go back. On our drive back to the hotel, we got off the highway and on to the Siege of Petersburg Battleground national monument. We had walked on these grounds, and run on these roads; on Sunday we did the tourist thing by paying money to drive the route and stop in at the various vestiges of those months of seige, advance, and retreat. Really, the area is eminently walkable for anyone in reasonably good health and lots of time. On bikes, it could be a splendid outing. In a car it was just right for the time we had.

I learned more about the waging of the Civil War, during the hour or so we spent here, than all the reading I remember growing up. (And that may just be as much as saying that either I didn't do that much reading about the War, or that I just don't remember it!) Thanks for your patience with a nerdy Dad, Andrew! But honestly, it was a treat to tour this area with a military man who has an interest and sense of history. Enjoyable and informative.

Lunch was the last stop before Norfolk International. While we might have eaten anywhere - as you can imagine, near a military base there are many options - Andrew and I easily agreed on Ruby Tuesday's. Only on our way out did I find out that it is a favorite with the young 2nd Lts., because the wait staff is primarily pretty, young girls! OK, so the food was "OK" too. And after hotel complementary breakfasts, quick carry out meals, and a college guy in-room supper, it was nice to sit down and be served. Even more nice to feel that I could actually treat our young officer to something special.

I did take the non-expressway route back to Norfolk. It was a pleasant, easy, interesting drive which left me plenty of time to return the rental and get settled in the airport. Among my regrets upon leaving, as I drove (and still), the main one is that there is little likelihood that Andrew's career will give me more opportunity to return to Fort Lee, Petersburg, and Richmond! Or for Karen to see it. Andrew will return for his final training as a supply officer, then be based elsewhere. I guess it is possible that with the Quartermaster Corps he could get reassigned to Lee, their headquarters. I hope so ... I'd like to return!

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