How I Spent My Fourth Of JulyPosted: July 7, 2011
I spent my Fourth of July parading, silent and solemn, through the street (there is no plural) of Plymouth Notch, Vermont—birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, birthplace of this project. We began by the village green. We arrived at the grave. There I paid respects—and wished the late Vermonter a happy and healthy 139th. Coolidge, ever silent, said nothing in return.
I spent my Fourth of July traversing 160 miles of dotted white line. I followed I-91 south from central Vermont to New Haven, Connecticut: from the president who spoke too little (who remains still among the most articulate conservatives in presidential history) to he who talked too much (who ranks easily as the least articulate conservative in presidential history). I stopped at the Vermont Country Store for free samples, at Starbucks for free Wi-Fi, free outlet access, free restrooms. I paid for gas.
I spent my Fourth of July lurking sketchily outside an inner-city hospital complex, backpack and camera in tow, doctors swarming by like ants to bread. I must have appeared on some security camera, suspicious and lost. By some miracle of God, I was not detained.
And here they are marching: the Vermont National Guard (front), the Coolidge descendants (second row), the miles and miles of townsfolk, Vermonters, out-of-staters, here for Coolidge, for curiosity, for quality July 4th barbecue, for whatever.
The place is Plymouth Notch, the occasion the President Calvin Coolidge Birthday Celebration. Coolidge was the only president born on America’s birthday, and the Plymouth tradition dates back decades (how many, I can’t seem to find out). His, you’d imagine, is a solemn parade:
Here, it’s not about politics, about policy and farm subsidies and the casual corruption of the Harding era. It’s about a small-town gentleman—a genuine Plymouth native—who rose, through education and commitment and good old hard work, to the governorship and the presidency less than a century ago. He is not honored as a political hero or martyr or invigorating activist. He is simply one who served—who, like the National Guardsmen leading the procession, gave part of himself to the country whose birthday he shared—and that, in Plymouth, is enough for pride.
We made it to the cemetery. To the Coolidge plot, where six generations of Coolidges are buried and where Calvin—ever modest—has a grave like any other. The most recent addition is John Coolidge, the president’s first son, who died in 2000 at the age of 93. He rests beside his brother, Calvin Jr., who died during his father’s presidency at only 16, of a staphylococcus infection from a blister contracted during a tennis match with his older brother.
President Coolidge rarely expressed much emotion, his surviving son John recalled to Life magazine in 1992. “But when they were taking my brother’s casket from the White House after the services, my father broke down and wept momentarily.”
“Calvin,” John reluctantly admitted, “was my father’s favorite. It hurt him terribly. It hurt us all.”
And the Coolidges ascended to the family plot, where a National Guardsman took to the microphone and introduced the president’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who bear a reasonably striking resemblance. Do they, too, I wonder, expect to be buried here in tiny Plymouth Notch, with six generations of family history? Do they stand proud at their great-grandfather’s mention during eighth-grade history class, or shrug off the connection, or sigh with embarrassed fatigue? Or pine for stories about the president they never knew?
But they look just like him. Don’t they know?
We stood quiet in the sweltering heat during “Taps.” We watched as the Guardsmen lay a wreath on the president’s grave. We rubbed shoulders with the presidential descendants, took goofy self-shots beside the Coolidge grave. (These are not descendants. They are members of the youngest Coolidge heir’s boy scout troop, invited by the family.)
And then we scattered. I made my way back to the village green, where the Wilder Restaurant provided a $10 chicken barbecue. I met a Vermont journalist who asked me about my “Another Woman For McGovern” pin. Behind him on line stood another National Guardsman, this one a bit older, smiling behind glasses and a thinning hairline. He was talking loudly to his family, something about his college years and Burlington and UVM in the ’70s. My unwilling eavesdropping grew tiresome soon enough, and I had to ask, so finally I turned to face him and made my presence known.
“Sorry, you said something about UVM? What year did you graduate?”
1976, I think he said. My dad was ’74, I reported; the family name sounded familiar to him, and we soon realized they had both been involved with UVM radio at roughly the same time, overlapping for two years.
They were probably never friends. Two years of difference will do that in college. More likely they just sat next to each other in the same business lecture, or shared a beer at the same Loggins & Messina set in 1973. But sometimes that’s enough for family, and so the guardsman introduced himself as Lloyd and brought his family to sit with me at the barbecue.
When I explained what brought me to the President Calvin Coolidge Birthday Celebration, Lloyd’s eyes lit up.
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” he replied. “I’ve been taking my family all around the country visiting presidential sites for years. We call it the Dead Presidents Tour! Right, kids?”
They nodded and quickly looked away, embarrassed. But Lloyd wasn’t done. He began excitedly rattling off the places he’d been, the homes and birthplaces and gravesites he’d seen, the best and most interesting and most bizarre.
“You ever been to Hoover’s grave in Iowa?” I shook my head. “Man, that’s where it all started. On my way to Missouri in ’87, happened to pass through Hoover’s grave. The Hoover site is fantastic. That’s a town stuck in time.”
That’s when I got out my notebook.
“You know, it’s considered good luck to pet Lincoln’s nose at the monument by his grave.” Lloyd clearly had a thing for presidential graves. “And if you’re there at 8 PM on a Monday night—man, they do a Civil War reenactment and everything.”
When Lloyd’s youngest son was born with Down syndrome, the family wrote a letter to President Clinton, who shortly replied with a letter of his own, “welcoming the child into the world.” The family ended up touring the White House, and then Lincoln’s historic site in Springfield, and then pretty much everywhere. We exchanged verbal accounts of where we’d been. Lloyd has never seen Grover Cleveland’s birthplace, or the Chester Arthur site in Fairfield. I was glad for recommendations in Ohio and Illinois. Lloyd was glad for my email address, so he could write to me of everything he forgot to mention.
“I was at Disneyland the day the Nixon Historic Site was dedicated,” Lloyd bragged. “All you saw were helicopters!”
Thirty minutes and countless presidential factoids later, I managed a gracious goodbye and hit I-91 for New Haven.
So here it is. The main entrance to Connecticut’s largest hospital, the Yale-New Haven Hospital, previously known as Grace-New Haven Hospital, where one George W. Bush was born in 1946.
Not that any doctors here know it. Or seem to care.
I questioned them as they filed through the metallic revolving doors, mostly headed to the staff parking garage. “Is this the hospital where George W. Bush was born?”
Blank stares all around. “I don’t know anything about that.” “I don’t know, sorry.” “Um. I think I heard something about that once.” “More like a psych ward, if you ask me.”
The reception desk clerk went so far as to Google it, confirmed in a few small clicks. “Yep,” he said. “This is the hospital.” Without another thought (or a simple “Why do you ask?”), he got back to work.
Only the valet parking attendant seemed to know for sure. “So this is where President Bush was born?” I asked him.
“Yep!” he responded through a thick Jamaican accent.
“Is there a plaque or anything?” I questioned.
“Um. Why not?” Like pulling teeth.
The thing is, even Bush himself doesn’t like to mention he was born in Connecticut. Maybe for political reasons, speculated the New York Times shortly after the 2000 election. “Mr. Bush doesn’t seem inclined to admit to his Connecticut roots,” a journalist observed. Certainly never in speeches. Plus, “his official biography on his campaign’s Web site says he ‘was born on July 6, 1946, and grew up in Midland and Houston, Texas.’ There is no mention Connecticut.”
”Not being born in Texas wouldn’t help anyone running for office here,” explained a librarian at the Austin History Center in Texas. So what if Bush is the first president born in the state of Connecticut? He spent only the first year or two of his life here, while his father, fresh out of World War II, finished up his undergraduate degree at Yale. The Bushes lived at 37 Hillhouse Avenue then—today a Yale administrative building of some sort, directly across from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. An “Authorized Yale Personnel Only” sign graces the door.
If Texas is where Bush marks his roots, then so be it. That’s where he grew up (mostly), where he spent his oil industry career and owned the Texas Rangers franchise, where he ascended to the Texas governorship in 1994. But this cold, steel New Haven building is where he was born. At least some random parking attendant knows it, if nobody else. To me, somehow, that’s a relief.
* * * *
- Independence Day and birthday celebration planned at Coolidge Historic Site (VTDigger)
- John Coolidge, Guardian of President’s Legacy, Dies at 93 (New York Times)
- Calvin Coolidge: His First Biography (R. M. Washburn)
- Bush’s Birthplace? It’s Deep in the Heart of . . . New Haven (New York Times)