Thursday, June 2, 2011

Celebrating nation's history -- but not Palin's way -- June 2, 2011 column


Like many Americans, the Palin family of Alaska and Arizona is on vacation. Sarah Palin says she hopes her “One Nation Tour” will raise public awareness of the foundations of America.

One thing is clear. Palin’s idea of a family vacation is nothing like most people’s. We don’t hype our trips with high-falutin’ causes or names. We don’t decorate our vehicles with our signatures and gaudy images of the Constitution. And we don’t use our travels as a fund-raising gimmick for our political action committees (our what?) or to bedevil the news media.

Palin is right about one thing, though. Historic sites and national parks are worth visiting.

And a visit is more than a pause. Palin spent all of 45 minutes at Mount Vernon, and less than an hour at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Even on a private, guided tour – the Barracuda doesn’t stand in line -- that’s race walking through history.

Palin can have her heavy-with-portent flash stops in the presidential powerhouse states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but that’s hardly a vacation. It’s mushing through a trial Iditarod-presidential campaign.

Visiting national parks and historic sites can be relaxing, educational and awe-inspiring. Vacations can show us how much we don’t know and whet our appetites to learn more about American history and genius.

I use the word genius intentionally. Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. On a wind-swept hill with a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound is the 60-foot monument to the first flights of Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903.

An inscription says the granite monument commemorates the Wright brothers’ conquest of the air -- “conceived by genius (and) achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.”

We throw the word genius around, but here it fits, as do resolve and faith. The Wright brothers -- inveterate tinkerers who repaired and built bicycles in Dayton, Ohio -- had genius, resolve and faith in ample supply. It took years to accomplish their goal of free, sustained flight in a power-driven machine.

In May 1900, Wilbur Wright, 33, wrote Octave Chanute, a wealthy businessman, a letter that began, "For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life."

Orville Wright, later describing the first flight, wrote: “Our minds became so obsessed with it that we could do little other work.”

On the monument to the brothers’ achievement are the proudly chiseled words, “Erected by Congress.” Congress approved the memorial and President Coolidge signed the legislation in 1927. It was built during the Great Depression.

At home, I found online an article by Herbert Peele in The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, N.C., on Nov. 18, 1932, the day before the memorial was dedicated. Until the Wright brothers, someone who wanted to “put the stamp of utter impracticability” on a proposed action had only to say, “He can no more do that than he can fly,” Peele wrote.

Publisher Peele noted that the Wright brothers’ achievement had not been recognized immediately. Twenty-five years passed after the first flight and before the memorial’s cornerstone was laid. But Peele was certain the achievement would shine forever.

On the centennial of the first flight in 2003, President George W. Bush went to Kill Devil Hills. Some hoped the president would announce a new era in space exploration. He didn’t, and a highly anticipated flight re-creation fell flat, literally. There wasn’t enough wind, and the wooden biplane never got off the ground.

Today, the relentless news cycle is filled with dire reports of budget cuts, war and economic turmoil. The need to celebrate ingenuity, hard work – and genius -- is surely as strong today as it was in the 1930s.

The National Park Service is studying whether add historic sites commemorating the life of Cesar Chavez, the 1960s’ farm labor movement leader, in California and Arizona. Chavez is a hero to millions, and the issue has become a cause célèbre, especially among Mexican Americans. A decision is expected later this year.

Someday families on vacation may visit the place where Chavez ended a hunger strike by sharing bread with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

At the Wright Brothers Memorial, families walk the wide, flat, sandy field where markers show the length of the four flights on Dec. 17, 1903.

The day I was there, three brothers timed each other while running the length of the first flight, which lasted just 12 seconds.

“I beat the plane!” one boy shouted, savoring a moment in history.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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