“My work is done.” —James Garfield’s last words, September 19, 1881
“Goodbye all, goodbye. It is God’s way; not ours. His will be done.” —William McKinley’s last words, September 14, 1901
Pat, our fast-talking tour guide at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, knows a good deal about the twentieth president. About his campaign, at least, which was managed from this front porch in 1880. That was the summer when 17,000 Americans stopped through Mentor to hear the Senator-elect from Ohio speak. (The railroads had to add a temporary stop just to accommodate the travelers injuring themselves hopping off the train to hear Garfield speak.)
It’s funny: you drive the entire length of Pennsylvania (that’s 283 mind-numbing miles of I-80), and finally you cross over into Ohio, and find yourself expecting some great gratifying shift in scenery, some grand “Mother of Presidents” welcome parade.
And it all still looks like Pennsylvania. And I-80 goes on and on.
Yes, I’ve made it to Ohio. Birthplace of seven U.S. presidents (three died in office; all, strangely, served between 1870 and 1923). Birthplace of aviation (GTFO, North Carolina). Birthplace of . . . my biological grandmother?
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 more importantly, where’d he get that groovy stache?
This is a brief transmission from the road: I am en route to Fairfield, VT, possible birthplace of Chester A. Arthur. (The Virgin Mobile wireless device is an incredible invention.) (Rest assured, my mother is driving.) (Shockingly, she has not found time in her
fifty-odd years to visit the Chester A. Arthur birthplace, so why not now?) (She does not want to be identified by age, which sounds a little bit like Chester.)
As if driving waaaaay the hell up to the northernmost tip of Vermont (Fairfield: population 1,800) just for a tiny cottage isn’t absurd enough, add to this adventure the fact that Chester A. Arthur very possibly wasn’t even born there. More than any other president, mystery surrounds the circumstances of the 21st president’s birth. I have little time or laptop battery for detail, but Wikipedia offers highlights:
“Vermont is a state I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield and Equinox without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me.” —Calvin Coolidge, Address at Bennington
“There’s kind of a sense of calmness. Of self-being. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s a different way of living.” —Nancy Yale, tour guide and restaurant owner, President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site
In which I stumble upon my first presidential site by accident, and don’t know how to feel about it.
It’s been a month—a few days more, if you’re keeping track—and this project has officially become a parody of this project.
Let me explain. I made the drive yesterday from Middletown to Vermont, where I expect to see birthplaces of Presidents Arthur, Coolidge (where it all started, and where I plan to attend this birthday parade), and Pierce (in Hillsborough, New Hampshire). I’m blogging from Winhall, population 702.
But even on the road, I can’t get away. Presidential history is tailing me, relentless and wild, through the scenic trails of southern Vermont.
Happy birthday, Stan!
Rest assured: despite car trouble in Staunton, navigation trouble by the Lincoln Tunnel, and State Identity Crisis in Delaware, I have made it safely home from Virginia—just in time for my grandpa Stanley’s swinging 85th birthday bash (not pictured: Stan, swinging birthday bash). What a relief to spend time with living relatives rather than dead presidents! (Shockingly, they all want to hear about dead presidents.)
Stan was never president, but hell if he hasn’t lived enough history for two terms and more. He was born in the summer of 1926, during the second administration of my main man “Silent Cal,” whose post-apocalyptic Plymouth, VT, farm more or less spawned this unfathomable series of exploits whose genesis I still strive to understand. That places Stan just two years behind Carter and Bush I, if you’re keeping score. Speaking of birthday parties, here’s some prime info on Calvin Coolidge’s, which I certainly hope to attend next month, because what the hell else would I be celebrating on July 4?