As American as Football and (steak and kidney) Pie
Most of the time, one 4th of July blends into another. Each year is more or less the same. There is a barbecue. There are sparklers. There is trying to find the dog that is hiding because the neighbors are setting off fireworks. There is the rought start to the 5th of July since the neighbors didn't stop setting off fireworks until 3am. One year more or less blends into the other.
But I remember where I was thirty years ago on the 4th of July. That one will always be special to me.
In the summer of 1987 I was 13 and had just “graduated” from the 8th grade. To celebrate, my grandparents took me and my cousin to the UK for two weeks of sightseeing and canal boat travel. It was the first time I had traveled so far out of the US. I had been to Canada once when I was little, and, living in Southern California, there were the weekend trips to Mexico. But this was a real trip! There were passports, and overnight flights, and people driving on the wrong side of the road. In short, this was going to be an adventure.
My grandfather had just had both his knees replaced and was getting around with the benefit of a pair of canes. The Parkinson’s was starting to become more noticeable. The tremors had started in his left hand. At first they were just little shakes, but soon they graduated to larger motions that could only be controlled by my grandfather grasping his left hand with his right. In another cople of years both hands would be shaking uncontrollably. I was too young to realize it at the time, but I think he thought this was going to be his last chance for an adventure. (It wasn’t, but this was definitely the last time my Grandmother let him go “unsupervised”). It was time to cross some things off his bucket list.
My grandfather had been a career Navy man. After leaving Dayton, Ohio in 1933 to head to the Naval Academy, he never lived land-locked again. Salt water was in his veins. His retired to Coronado Island in San Diego, and most of his travels and vacations involved something to do with water. This trip would be no different.
After the requisite week in London where we saw everything from the Greenwich Observatory to the Crown Jewels (and eating Indian food as often as my grandparents would allow it), it was time for the real adventure to begin: we would take a canal boat to Wales so my grandfather could pilot it across the Ponticelli (also known as pontcysyllte) aqueduct.
The Pontecelli aqueduct is the longest and oldest navigable aqueduct in the UK, and the tallest in the world. Opened in 1805, this Roman-inspired structure soaring 25 feet into the air must have been truly mind boggling to those who first saw its stone columns.
My grandmother wanted nothing to do with this. She and my aunt elected to spend an additional week in London, shopping and seeing sights that would not appeal to 13 year old boys.
The four of us (my uncle was along for the ride) took up residence in a forty foot long, eight foot wide canal boat. It sat low in the water and, when the engine was wide open, did barely better than jogging speed. It was not exactly the kind of excitement I was craving, but I did have to admit that it provided a unique view of the British countryside.
It soon became clear the real reason my cousin and I were invited on this trip: the locks. The canal system of the UK is divided by a series of locks which allow for boats to travel up or down elevation changes safely. A boat pulls into a chamber and a large door closes behind it. Then a series of “windows” are opened and water pours into the closed chamber, raising the level of the boat to the level of water above. Then the front of the chamber opens and the boat motors out. Sometimes only a single lock is needed to raise the boat to the appropriate level. Sometimes a series of locks is necessary. Modern locks are a powered affair, with machines taking care of the opening and closing of the “windows” as well as the opening and closing of the “doors”. But the locks in the UK were not modern. Everything was human powered, and my cousin and I quickly realized our vacation came with a price. Most locks required two people to operate them, and there just happened to be two of us...
The 4th of July found us tied up below a small pub in some town in Wales. I sat on the boat and watched the local boys trying to impress the local girls on the adjacent putting green. I listened to the laughter coming from inside the pub. No one was setting off fireworks. No one was making plans for a barbecue. It was as if the people around me had no idea that this was the 4th of Freaking July!!! The biggest holiday of the Summer!!!!
And that was when it truly hit me: I wasn’t the center of the universe.
For the first time in my 13 years I understood what a grand and diverse world we live in. The things that I had grown up with as part of my cultural identity were totally foreign and downright irrelevant to most of the rest of the world. Sure, we can discuss the geopolitical ramifications of our President’s decisions and the interconnectedness of our global ecosystem, but on a person to person level, the average person is about as invested in the American trading of blowing things up on the 4th of July as the average American is invested in the outcome of the World Cup of Cricket. As soon as I realized that there were so many other things in the world that people held dear to them, I was hooked. I had to know more! I had to experience more! I had to see it all! It was at that moment that my wanderlust was awakened.
Thirty years later I found myself in much the same situation. I was in a small town just outside of Sheffield surrounded by people who probably didn’t know (and couldn’t care less) that it was America’s birthday. The hometown Sheffield FC (the oldest unaffiliated football team in the world) was taking on its neighboring rival, Chesterfield. For the 667 people in attendance, the 1 - 3 score was the only fireworks they cared about.
As I ate my steak and kidney pie (Grandfather’s favorite), chips, and mushed peas I realized that this trip to Mongolia really started on that canal boat. The seeds were laid by my grandfather and his love of travel. He knew that the world was a big place and he wanted me to see it and love it the way he did. I’m sure that he would tell me all the way that this trip could be done better (starting with a vehicle that actually had a fighting chance of getting to the finish line), but deep down he’d be wishing he was along for the adventure.
I miss him every day, but especially on this 4th of July.
-Grandfather at the helm, crossing the Pontecelli aqueduct.
(If you would like to help me honor his memory, please consider a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the official charity of team Seemed Like a Good Idea)