3,500 Feet of Nixonian Despair

Driving hundreds of miles through cornfields with "Fiesta Size!" tortilla chips on my lap = my summer. Photo: Rachel Pincus.

Driving a thousand miles home from West Branch, Iowa, only to head to Newark International Airport and board a flight to Orange County would have once seemed to me some surreal joke. Today, it has been woven seamlessly into the fabric of My Summer Vacation.

Yes, the rumors are true: after ten days on the road—about 2,998 miles total, according to Mapquest—Rachel and I returned in one piece from July’s Great Midwestern Odyssey. We saw eleven presidential birthplaces total (twelve if you count Jefferson Davis’s), a handful of presidential tombs and other pertinent sites, and more evangelicalthemed billboards than I could shake a stick at. (I was too busy driving.) We pilgrimaged to Ohio Wesleyan (well…), trolled Jefferson Davis’s supremely phallic birthplace (sort of?), and met a Kentucky preacher. We took a Reagan Coloring Book from Tampico, a cornstalk from Iowa. We made it as far west as West Branch, IA; as far south as Fairview, KY; as far north as the Chicago suburbs. We traveled alongside an Amish wanderer in Kentucky, a Hells Angels herd in Pennsylvania, a gargantuan inflatable dinosaur in Ohio. We spent a night in Niles, OH; in Beachwood, OH; in Beachwood again; in Cincinnati; in Louisville; in Evansville, IN; in Springfield, IL; in West Branch, IA; in Schaumburg, IL; in Beachwood again; and, finally, back home in Chappaqua.

Far more photos of the adventure can be viewed here (mine) and here (Rachel’s).


Treasures of Hodgenville, KY. WWLD?? Photo by Rachel Pincus.

The other rumors are true, too. I am going to California (with an aching in my heart). I’m drafting this post at X,000 feet above sea level, having just finished my boxed cheese-and-fruit platter and now drifting smoothly above what may as well be the same immeasurable Midwestern plains I navigated by freeway just last week. When I was little, all I ever wanted was a window seat. But I’ve seen more than enough cornfields for one summer. Today, all I want is to get to the aisle and pee before the seatbelt sign lights up again. My seatmates—a heavyset, stone-faced gentleman asleep clutching a pocket bible open to Matthew 27, his 11-year-old daughter snoozing peacefully against his shoulder—render this maneuver impossible. So I keep writing. [Update: I eventually made it to Yorba Linda. Putting up with my sedentary seatmate was more than worth it, if only to see him get in a swearing match with the old man behind him regarding whether or not his seat was in the full upright position. “I’ll see you outside the plane,” grunted Angry Old Man. They did not, to my knowledge, see each other outside the plane.]

There are a lot of palm trees in Orange County, I think. Did I mention I won a fellowship?

LINGERING QU3STI0NZZZ:

What? You’re going to California?

Yes, I am going to California.

Really?

Yes.

What?

Yes. This brief Californian interlude is in direct violation of my initial Roadtrip Only policy, due in large part to two recent developments:

  • a)  My mom mentioned she had lots of frequent flier miles.
  • b) My mom mentioned she wouldn’t mind taking a trip to California. (With me.) (And King Richard, more or less.) (She’s already there, though. I’m flying alone. C’est compliquée.)

So I’m going to Orange County with my mom to investigate the origins of the first president she was old enough to resent. We’ll visit Nixon’s small frame birthplace home just a few miles away in Yorba Linda. We’ll stop by the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley—an intriguing complement (or foil) to my experiences at Ronny’s birthplace in Tampico, IL, last week. And we’ll maybe possibly even squeeze in time for LA’s Amoeba location. That one’s not a presidential site. Unless you count the vast archive of Nixon-baiting protest songs clogging up that store’s used vinyl bins.

How many presidential sites did you see in the midwest?

Here’s a comprehensive list (birthplaces are italicized):

7/14/11

  • William McKinley birthplace, Niles, OH
  • William McKinley Museum and National Monument, Niles, OH
  • James A. Garfield National Historic Site, Mentor, OH
  • James A. Garfield birthplace cabin, Moreland Hills, OH

7/15/11

  • Warren G. Harding Home, Marion, OH
  • Warren G. Harding tomb, Marion, OH
  • Warren G. Harding birthplace marker, Blooming Grove, OH

7/16/11

  • James A. Garfield tomb, Cleveland, OH
  • Rutherford B. Hayes birthplace marker, BP gas station, Delaware, OH

7/17/11

  • William Howard Taft National Historic Site (and birthplace), Cincinnati, OH
  • Ulysses S. Grant birthplace, Point Pleasant, OH
  • Benjamin Harrison birthplace marker/William Henry Harrison farm, North Bend, OH
  • William Henry Harrison tomb, North Bend, OH
  • Zachary Taylor Boyhood Home, Louisville, KY
  • Zachary Taylor tomb, Louisville, KY

7/18/11

  • Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, Hodgenville, KY
  • Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home National Historic Site, Hodgenville, KY
  • Jefferson Davis State Historic Site, Fairview, KY

7/19/11

  • Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site, Springfield, IL
  • Abraham Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, Springfield, IL

7/20/11

  • Lincoln Depot, Springfield, IL
  • Herbert Hoover National Historic Site (including birthplace), West Branch, IA
  • Herbert Hoover grave site, West Branch, IA

7/21/11

  • Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, IA
  • Ronald Reagan Birthplace, Tampico, IL

7/22/11

  • “Spiegel Grove,” Rutherford B. Hayes’ house, Fremont, OH
  • Rutherford B. Hayes tomb, Fremont, OH

7/23/11

  • James Buchanan Birthplace State Park, Mercersburg, PA
  • James Buchanan birthplace cabin, Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, PA
  • James Buchanan House, Mercersburg, PA

William Henry Harrison's tomb: so dope, he may as well have been president for two months instead of one.

Did you ever meet up with your distant relative in Ohio?

Yes. Marvin Feldman, an 81-year-old lawyer who’s been practicing in the Cleveland area since, ummm, 1957, turned out to be a long lost first cousin of my biological grandmother, who died in 1968. I emailed him out of nowhere, and he excitedly confirmed the relation. “I would certainly like to take him out to dinner,” he exclaimed to my mother over the phone after learning I was headed to Ohio that same month. Marvin has no children and therefore no grandchildren to spoil. To learn of a distantly related young person anxious to meet you—such naches! “And I’ll take him to James Garfield’s tomb!” He had been clued in to the nature of my trip.” It’s right in the cemetery where I’ll be buried.”

And so, by sheer chance or biological fate, Rachel and I ended up spending our Friday evening at the Cleveland Skating Club with Marvin and Alva Feldman, a gracious, elderly Jewish couple all too eager to fuss over our every bite. “You don’t need to wear a jacket and tie,” Marvin assured me, firmly, over the phone, explaining the club’s Friday night “grillin’ and chillin'” special. “But does your mother know you are traveling with a female?”

And so I learned about the biological family I had never known. About my great-grandfather, Marvin’s uncle Julius (“he was a gentle man; he was never aggressive to anyone”). About Julius’s brothers, who never left Poland, who perished in the concentration camps, of whose existence my mother never knew. About Marvin’s late brother Clarence, whose name was also listed in Sylvia’s address book, whose well-to-do doctor son had recently committed suicide after having been caught selling prescription drugs illegally. About Marvin’s experiences in New York (“I went to Harlem once; I was the only light-skinned fella around”), his driving troubles (a horrific 1995 accident left him partially paralyzed for months, he revealed after driving us through Shaker Heights), and a particularly bizarre episode being contacted by a former girlfriend who wished she had married him in 1955 (“she was a crazy person,” Alva reassured us a bit nervously).

And Marvin, in turn, treated us like the grandchildren he had never had. “This is the most I have talked about your family in 40 years.” And it was the most I had learned about my maternal ancestors in—well, ever. My grandmother’s premature death had snuffed with it nearly all knowledge of her family’s past. So I took notes for my mom, and promised to report back all I could learn. Taking a break from presidents proved worth it—if only for one night.

Marvin and Alva: grillin' and chillin' all night long (or at least till 9).

Who else did you hang out with in the Midwest?

Marvin was one puzzle piece in the wildly revolving door of arranged encounters and gracious hosts throughout our ten-day journey. There were Laura and Danno, business friends of my father, who welcomed us to their Cleveland home (“stay as many nights as you like”—we chose three) and introduced us to their inconsolable dog, Kipper, and took us out to Ohio’s finest grilled cheese restaurant. There was Rachel’s uncle Jerry, a proudly cell-phoneless OSHA worker who led us on foot through treacherous Cincinnati to reach the nearest Bob Evans. There was Denise, a family friend’s mother who happily hosted us in Louisville, a firm, fast-talking widow who took us out for Cuban food with her gentleman boyfriend Gerry and invited Rachel to share her bed. We helped her clean glass shards from her kitchen floor. Not bad, in exchange for a night in her staggeringly decorated Louisville home. There was Kathy, the enthusiastic Iowan couchsurfing host and inadvertent Hoover expert. And, finally, my friend David, who lent me his bed (and more than substantial videogame collection) for a night in Schaumburg, IL. We got around.

Aren’t there pertinent songs about California that you can obnoxiously embed here?

Sure.

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