After returning from Canada in October, we had baby Jesse in May
1987. I wanted very much to prove to Jesse and to Lyn and to myself
that a baby was not going to act like an anchor in our traveling
life. Against Lyn's better judgment, I proposed and encouraged,
organized and executed, a two day trip from Detroit down to
Cincinnati (William Henry Harrison), Lexington, KY (Zachary Taylor)
and Indianapolis (Benjamin Harrison). Jesse sat in a car seat, too
young to even hold up his head yet. It was my logic that you could
sit him in a car seat and feed him formula in the kitchen or in back
seat of a car tooling down the highway. All in all, years after this
trip, nobody has changed from their original opinion of my idea. I
still think it was a good idea, and I stand alone in that regard.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON - North Bend, OH
10th in my collection (1st of 3 in trip)
Click to see
At this point in the collection, we were still not referring to
"the book" until after we found the actual grave site by
ourselves, adding to the general adventure. North Bend, Ohio, is just
outside of Cincinnati and located on the Ohio river, directly west
from downtown. It must have been a very beautiful area in President
Harrison's day, but river economics and property development patterns
lead to this particular area becoming home to an oil refinery, a
commercial barge landing area, and one of those nuclear cooling
towers made famous by Homer Simpson. But the Ohio River was
beautiful, with both banks having steep hills with grand vistas from
their tops. While we winded our way through the power plants and
refineries, we watched both pleasure craft and barges with tugs
plying the smooth river.
Soon enough we rounded a bend and saw a giant obelisk atop a bluff
with spectacular vistas of the tree lined river. I'm sure it was
stone, but was the color of the concrete that is popular for the
outer walls of boring office buildings. I first thought the obelisk
to be 10 feet tall, then 20 or 30, eventually figuring out that it
was as tall as a six or seven story building (and perched atop a
riverbank hill, to boot). We parked in the 3-car visitor lot, and
walked our way up the combination trail and stairway, negotiating the
steep rise. We took pictures of each other, and of the beautiful
river views from the railed plaza area in front of the giant obelisk.
Up close we became aware of an aged metal or painted wood door into
the obelisk, obviously access to the actual remains.
became aware of how difficult it was to actually photograph the
obelisk, it being HUGE, and us being directly beneath it. On its
sides were carved descriptions of President Harrison's
accomplishments (I had trouble remembering the details of his
presidential term). He was listed as the "Hero of the River
Raison". Later I learned that was a reference to his term as a
military general. Also mentioned was the battle of
"Tippecanoe" and we immediately started to chant, 120 years
after its use as a campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler,
too". And then I remembered that Harrison had died in office,
succeeded by John Tyler of Virginia. Then the historic dioramas
reminded us of the story off the ill-fated President Harrison.
After his stunning military victories (mostly slaughtering Indians),
he was elected President. After his inauguration, and during his
Presidential parade, he opted to forget his carriage and walk himself
down Pennsylvania avenue (like President Carter did, in my own
lifetime). The history books claim that the weather was terrible,
that he had forgotten his overcoat, and that he caught pneumonia,
actually "serving" as president only a day or two, then
lingered in illness for another month or two, then succumbed to the
angel of death. We chuckled and nodded and prepared to take leave
from the obelisk when we again were overcome with a lifetime story.
As Lyn and I generally organized ourselves to return to the car and
head out, we were abruptly interrupted by an alarmingly strange man.
It was not like when one of the mentally ill homeless street people
walks up to you and talks about "Kevin", but something
similarly eerie. He was very middle aged, and middle America. He was
a sight! He wore walking shorts of a color closest to "burnt
orange" in your crayola box and a white sleeveless T-shirt. His
hair was mostly missing, and the few clumps were sweaty, salt and
pepper, and tufted together. He wore black horned rim glasses, just
like Tony Curtis in "the Boston Strangler". His outfit was
completed with Black nylon knee socks (ending below the knobby knees
that were capped by the burnt orange walking shorts) and
honest-to-goodness, swear to god, black oxford dress shoes, with the
little waxy string laces and the decorative toe design. Who the hell
Have you been following the story? We are about 20 miles out in the
countryside, having passed through an implausibly unappetizing
industrial area. The two of us are standing alone at a deserted
obscure national landmark, now 200 yards from our car after hoofing
up a very large hill. This man had obviously just beamed down from a
spaceship. Then with a nervous grin, he opened his mouth and spoke.
"So, are you folks from out of town?"
What on earth do you say to that question. As I recall, I hedged
response was something to the effect of "Maybe, but people know
where we are and will be expecting us". He made small talk about
our out of state license plates, and we continued to hedge in
response, generally strolling our way toward the top of the stairway
in case a foot race to the car park might ensue.
Sensing our discomfort (or, more probably, not), he fessed up about
who he was. He owned the house directly across the street from the
monument (the one that we hadn't noticed, I guessed). He had been
working on his lawn, wearing the same lawn mowing outfit I recognized
now from my own father and father-in-law, too. That also explained
the panting breath and sweaty hair. He had not just arrived
victorious from a bludgeoning.
It seems that the folks that take care of this obelisk sight (whoever
THEY are), asked him to "keep an eye on the place". They
had a lot of trouble with dreaded "teenagers", hanging out,
running off the good citizens, and causing a little vandalism. He
kept an eye on the parking lot, checking out the license plates and
all and springing his "out of nowhere" scare act on
Well with the truth out on him, I explained how we were down from
Detroit, and headed from here to Louisville and Indianapolis. He had
become quite an aficionado of his deceased and semi-famous neighbor,
repeating the pneumonia story and letting us know that Benjamin
Harrison in Indianapolis was actually a descendant of William Henry.
Then, once again, he popped the question.
Him: "Well you guys seem interested, want to go inside?"
Me: "What??? Ah, no. No. No really that's not necessary. No,
we've already got our picture.
Him: "Oh come on, I got the key right here"
And with that, he pulled on one of those retractable cable keychain
things that he suddenly had attached to the unbelted belt loop of his
burnt orange walking shorts. Before we could stop him, he unlocked
the door and opened it, and invited us into the tomb room.
Again, he placed himself between us and the door, and commanded us to
take in the scene, reveled in telling us a couple of stories, told us
about how the local woman's group visits periodically to refresh the
floral arrangements. The president and his wife were entombed, this
time in the wall like in a modern mausoleum, although that particular
afternoon all I could think of was the morgue, expecting him to slide
out a drawer, pull back a sheet, and command us to take it all in.
But he didn't. And we took a couple pictures of the wall mounted
headstones. Sadly, I was still so young that I was too shy to take
his picture. Today, I would have thrown my arm around his shoulder
and shot half a roll. Today I would have followed him back down the
hill and done the trimming while he finished mowing and would have
bought a cold twelve pack and listen to President Harrison stories
all afternoon. But back then we were too shy to take his picture, and
in a minute he had the door locked and bid us good day and was on his
way down the hill. In another minute, giving him time to cross the
imaginary street, we followed and were in our car and were on our
way. Back then, we were young enough that we seriously discussed the
danger we had placed ourselves in by visiting that site. "What
if he had been a weirdo?", we asked ourselves over and over and
ZACHARY TAYLOR - Louisville, KY
11th in my collection (2nd of 3 in trip)
Click to see
We cheated, a little, to find Zachary Taylor. We read the book to
find the name of the military cemetery where he was buried, and our
roadmap to find the way. The cemetery looked like all US military
cemeteries, with row upon row of identical small white marble
headstones. It looked like the ones in Gettysburg and Arlington and
everywhere else. Only back then, I didn't know that there actually
were dozens and dozens of military cemeteries.
Taylor had his own little mausoleum with "Taylor" carved
into the marble over the doorjamb. We paused for a couple of quick
pictures, and were on our way.
The only interesting story here was that about one year later, the
remains of President Taylor where actually disinterred for a couple
of days from that very place. He had died mysteriously (and
suddenly), and it was blamed on (of all things) a stomach ailment
from eating "too cold cherries" if I remember correctly.
Well this author proposed that he had actually been poisoned due to
his position about the civil war (I can't remember, either for or
against it) and the heirs actually agreed to have him disinterred for
a brief medical examination. It seems that fingernails either do not
decompose or do so very very slowly and that many common poisons
(arsenic, strychnine) would be resident in the nails.
Upon hearing the news, I begged to go down to Louisville to witness
the spectacle, but I was involved in a project in Detroit that was
within two weeks of going live, and nobody would cut me slack. Drat!
But we saved the newspaper pictures of the secret service agents
(yes, earphones and all) and the flag draped transport. He was
reinterred in a couple of days and the lab results showed no trace of
poisons. I have eaten all strawberries at room temperature since that day.
BENJAMIN HARRISON - Indianapolis, IN
12th in my collection (3rd of 3 in trip)
Click to see
To round out our circle tour of mediocre Midwestern presidents, we
headed up to Indianapolis and into the cemetery to see President
Benjamin Harrison. He was the grandson of President William Henry
Harrison who we had just visited, and served with equal notoriety.
His other point of presidential trivia is that he served his one term
both before and after Grover Cleveland, thus meeting Cleveland twice
on the presidential inaugural podium.
found the cemetery to be in a seedy part of town, and were petrified
as we searched for the access gate. Lyn was verbally worried, and
recanted about what a terrible idea it was for us to be there.
Eventually we passed through the gate and into one of those gigantic
cemeteries that seemingly go for miles in all directions. We followed
the signs to see the other President Harrison, and his tomb was above
ground but at least not the general dimension of a casket. It was
white marble with black letters describing its contents and, after a
picture or two, we were on our way.
Down the street was another boyhood home / museum complex which we
visited to see period furniture, swords and maps, and blown up
pictures of old newspaper headlines. For the record, on a years later
business trip to Indianapolis, I returned by myself to the area,
which had improved noticeably in terms of diminished graffiti,
loiterers, and burned out buildings, but could confidently attribute
80% of the fear and loathing to us just being young and inexperienced
travelers the first time around.
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