Absent minded

When summer creeps through the front door, that’s the time some of us creep out the back. Playing hooky is a time- honored tradition; even bike-riding presidents are doing it these days! In celebration of the season, we’ve culled 10 ideas that will spice up your illicit time away from work or other obligations. Whether you seek some alone time or retail therapy or even if you’re just escaping from errands and dirty dishes in order to reconnect with your kids, we might be able to help you out. But when it comes to making up a story to account for your absence—and sticking to it—well, you’re on your own there.

 

Minor (league) details 
Richmond is the land of the free, home of the Braves

Sometimes the only sure way for us Charlottesvillians to go unseen is to get out of town. Think about it: Where can you go here and be absolutely sure you won’t see anyone you know? (Like your boss or an ex).

   Well, if you’re a baseball fan (or even if you’re not) there’s an afternoon cure for your ubiquity. Put on a baseball hat and a pair of dark sunglasses, head east down Route 64 for about an hour, and catch a 2, 4, or 7pm Richmond Braves game at “The Diamond.” A day trip to The Diamond is a great seventh inning stretch from life in Charlottesville. Plus, you’ll still make it back to town for dinner or a nightcap.

   Once seated, just grab a hot dog or a grilled sausage from Dominic’s of New York, hail a beer vendor and disappear into the 12,000-plus-seat stadium. Even if you do see someone you know, losing him or her is easy. Just wander around the stadium or duck into The Diamond Bar & Grill, which has a glass wall with a great view of the field from the first base side of the stadium. At only $6 for general admission and $9 for a box seat, it’s a pretty cheap way to play hooky for a day. Plus, you can yell as loud as you want! And the baseball’s not bad either. Former major leaguers hungry to get back to The Show and younger players only a good hitting streak away from being called up make for some competitive, exciting baseball.

   The Richmond Braves also offer up some fun promotions all season long. Every-thing from teacher and military appreciation days, to live music and a Star Wars night, as well as a salute to the Negro Leagues, with former league players on hand and both teams wearing throwback Negro League uniforms.

   If you’re looking to escape small-town reality for a few hours and bask in anonymity, getting away to see the Richmond Braves just might be a good call.—Dave McNair

To get to The Diamond: Take Route 64 East toward Richmond, merge with I-95, take Exit 78 (Boulevard Exit). Stadium is two blocks south after exiting. To find out about the Braves’ ‘05 schedule, special promotions and ticket information, visit http://rbraves.com, or call (804) 359-4444 or (800) 849-4627.

 

Love, rein down on me!
Perk up with a horseback-riding lesson

If your workweek involves a cubicle, then a satisfying hooky day alternative might be a leisurely, but visual, outdoor activity, such as horseback riding. As any cowboy will confirm, sublime vistas are enhanced when viewed from the perspective of a horse’s back.

   If the last time you were horseback was your seventh grade summer vacation to the Grand Tetons, fear not! The Rodes Farm Equestrian Center, located at Wintergreen’s Stoney Creek Village, has a variety of horseback activities ranging from weekday trail rides to pony rides to private riding lessons. With an emphasis on the English riding tradition (characterized by the saddle without the horn and the direct rein technique), the Rodes Farm Equestrian Center has been providing horsey fun to the Wintergreen Community since 1977.

   Open March through November, 9am-6pm, the rides follow trails that overlook the majestic Rockfish Valley and Wintergreen Mountain. The trail rides are geared toward both the novice rider ($47 per hour) and the “hack rider” ($50 per hour). Being a “hack rider,” it should be noted, is not the same thing as being a hack poet, since the former means that you can walk, trot and canter using English tack. Thankfully, to participate in the beginner trail ride, all you need to do is sit upright in the saddle!

   If you are interested in making the transition from novice to hack, group-riding lessons are available, and go for $38 an hour. On Saturday nights, the Equestrian Center also offers Sunset Dinner trail rides that take you from the stables at Wintergreen to Lake Monocan, against the romantic backdrop of the setting sun. The cost ($85 per person) even includes an evening meal prepared by the chef at the Stoney Creek Bar & Grill, which means that you will probably be enjoying the best picnic east of the Rio Grande.

   Since you did bag work to go horseback riding, it’s essential to look the part. Opt for a pair of blue jeans and sturdy shoes for protection against itchy horse blankets and the low-lying brush that covers the wild, wild, west of town. Even if you can’t control your horse any more than you can control the universe, at least you will look like a pro in the pictures.

   And definitely take a few pictures. The memories will cheer up your cube when you do return to your weekday obligations.—Anne Metz

 

To get to The Rodes Farm Equestrian Center at Stoney Creek Village: Take Route 64 West to Exit 107, travel west on Route 250, make a left on Route 151, look for signs to Stoney Creek on the right. For more information call 325-8260.

 

Death becomes you
A cemetery is ideal for getting away from it all

If you’re feeling like a zombie and are just dying to get away from the office, the last place you’d think of going to is a cemetery. Which is exactly what’s so great about them—you can be pretty sure that the rest of the workforce won’t be creeping around the City of the Dead with you. And since the cemetery residents are too busy pushing up the daisies, you are guaranteed solitude and privacy, with the added benefit of that fresh-flower smell.

   Maplewood Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in Charlottesville, is a jumble of paths, toppled headstones and boxwoods. Get some exercise by visiting Lettitia Shelby, the wife of the first governor of Kentucky and owner of the oldest gravestone in Maplewood (she died in 1777). Or be like Indiana Jones and search for the 100-some unmarked Confederate graves scattered throughout the 2,500 gravestones.

   If you’re hoping for inspiration, head over to the chock-full-of-character Daughters of Zion cemetery, established in 1873 for the African-American community. Remnants of fencing and withered headstones testify to the memory of those who struggled through harder times, and the tombstone of Benjamin Tonsler, after whom Tonsler Park is named, reminds of us of the good people can bring to the world. A former slave, he became the principal of the Jefferson School in the 19th century, dedicating his life and career to helping educate African-Americans.

   At the University Cemetery at UVA, founded in 1828, there are even more reminders of the life of the mind. A stroll among the stones reveals names familiar from campus buildings such as Alderman, Clemons and Newcomb.

   If you still aren’t turned on to the idea of playing hooky in a cemetery, here’s the clincher: It’s easy to disguise your real purpose. If that irritating receptionist or annoying manager catches you, just tell them you’re visiting your dead. Remember to pack your eye drops and prepare a tale about the family tree, just in case.—Katy McCune

 

The University Cemetery of UVA is located at the corner of Alderman and McCormick. Maplewood Cemetery is located on 425 Maple St. Daughters of Zion is located on Oak Street. All are open during daylight hours. Let the dead rest in peace—no dogs, please.

 

Sweet, salty summer
Hooky’s twice as nice with a margarita or three

Whether there’s a woman to blame (or man), an unreasonable boss, or you know it’s your own damn fault, sometimes the best cure-all for an aching heart or a bruised ego is a good margarita at 3 in the afternoon. Hell, a good margarita in the afternoon is a great idea even if you’re as happy as a clam at a beach party! Lucky for you, Charlottesville boasts a trio of top-notch tequila stations ready to serve you a cool, salty one before the sun goes down. So stop looking for that lost shaker of salt—and hand over your car keys to a friend!

   Two Corner landmarks, Baja Bean and St. Maarten’s Café, load the rails at 11am and stay open straight through last call at 1:30am. The Bean has 20 kinds of tequila to choose from and a secret ingredient in their homemade sour mix that owner Ron Morse won’t reveal. The Bean’s signature margarita, the “Ronrita” (named for Morse), features Two Fingers Gold, their classified sour mix, and a knockout version of Grand Gala. Frozen margaritas with fresh fruit are also available. Large margaritas come in a 27-ounce bulb glass and smaller ones in a standard pint glass. Five years ago, Morse told me, they used to serve the Ronrita in real fish bowls they bought out at Wal-Mart, but the Virginia ABC board banned the practice.

   Just a short walk away, St. Maarten’s Cafe serves up a long list of tequila and sour mix favorites, including its famous Gulf Stream blue margarita, fueled with Cuervo Gold and Blue Curaco. Like the Bean, Maarten’s offers up an assortment of frozen margs with fresh fruit, including a specialty fruit flavored marg called a “Rasberrita.” After 4pm on Thursdays, Maarten’s hosts Cheeseburger in Paradise Night with margs not much more expensive than a gallon of gas.

   As if that weren’t enough to get you pleasantly schnockered in the middle of the day, Joe Deluce and his family just moved up to Charlottesville from South Florida (where the margarita is more than just a drink, it’s a way of life) in January to open Sharky’s on Grady Avenue. When I told Deluce’s sister Julieanna that I was searching for the best margarita in Charlottesville, she didn’t hesitate. “That’s us,” she said confidently. According to rumors, that’s not false bravado. Restaurateurs from South Florida claiming they make a pretty good margarita are like winemakers from the southeastern coast of France claiming they make a pretty good Bordeaux.—Dave McNair

 

Sharky’s Bar & Grill is located at 946 Grady Ave., and can be reached at 293-3473. St. Maarten’s Café is at 1400 Wertland St.; call 293-2233. And Baja Bean sprouts at 1327 W. Main St. Call 293-4507.

 

Aural fixation
Take note of the music library

There’s no reason to think that a day of hooky has to be devoted to mindless activity. If you are going to bag your 9-to-5 responsibilities, why not spend the brief holiday attending to another lifelong obligation, like feeding your mind? Now, I’m not suggesting that you take the day off to go to the science museum or the planetarium, though they are inviting possibilities. I’m talking about getting some useful knowledge that will not only enhance your life, but will also make you more interesting.

   UVA’s music library is the perfect hooky destination for a little bit of good, clean learning fun. Being that it’s located in the bottom of Old Cabell Hall, you are twice as likely to be struck by lightning as you are to get caught in the library by a fellow co-worker.

   Open to the community, the listening cubes are fully equipped for CDs, tapes, and vinyl (33s, 45s and the ever-elusive 78s). The best part of the music library is that, with a collection of more than 100,000 items, it is fully stocked to deal with even the most curious taste in music. If you have a penchant for Stockhausen, a hankering for the Tropicalia movement, or an unscratchable itch for Lawrence Welk, come on down to Old Cabell Hall because the music library will have what you need.

   All you have to do is enter the artist, album, or genre in the Virgo Search line of the public computers. The database will produce a call number for the item you seek. Take this number and present it to the refreshingly unpretentious person at the front desk. The librarian will then fetch your fancy from the collection. Check out the item for the afternoon, and you are suddenly set for a day of aural pleasure!

   Since you are trying to be discreet about your hooky holiday, you might feel a bit more comfortable if you try to fit in with the music library crowd. While this is a UVA library, it’s not Clemons; so, leave the incognito preppie clothes at home because they will make you stand out much more than requesting a Jessica Simpson album. In preparation, think graduate school. Try sporting jeans, a nondescript shirt, and some variation on the European carryall. If you are really ambitious, a slightly tortured countenance will only enhance your ability to blend into the crowd.—Anne Metz

UVA Music Library is located in Old Cabell Hall on Grounds. Find the stairway in the center of the lobby. Take the stairway leading to the right down one floor. Turn left past the practice modules and find a second stairway. Follow these stairs down one more floor, go through the doorway, turn right and you are there.

 

Join the consumer nation
Hooky gets pretty with a trip to Short Pump

 If shopping at a mall sounds as miserably confining as your regular job, you might want to consider taking a day trip to the Short Pump Town Center. Short Pump is one of the newfangled open-air malls designed to make shoppers feel as if they are shopping in Europe. The intended European analogy might be a stretch, since the mall is smoke-free and air-conditioned. Still, this does not diminish the inherent appeal of being able to catch a quick glimpse of sunlight between shopping stops. It’s like Europe, but cushier and more kid friendly.

   On the westernmost end of what might be considered Richmond, Short Pump is only about an hour away. The distance is a good thing since it cuts down on your risk of being spotted on your self-proclaimed “mental health” day. If you go during the week, the crowds are quite sparse, so you get the sense that you have the whole mall to yourself.

   What best distinguishes Short Pump Town Center from our local mall would be the high-end department stores. You could spend all day on the two floors of Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Hecht’s alone. Nordstrom, of course, boasts the best shoe department, while Hecht’s seems to have a sizeable corner on the cosmetics counter market. If you have the time, let one of the make-up artists give you a complimentary new summer look. You don’t have to buy everything, especially not the bronzer, but buy something to remind yourself of your fanciful day.

   If you get hungry while shopping, I would recommend Tara Thai for lunch. Though it is a chain restaurant, it’s still an ethnic cuisine, which makes it somewhat more palatable.

   After the department stores and your lunch, there are still 60-odd other stores to explore. While you are there, be sure to check out the Apple Store to browse the latest accessories for your computer or your pod. For the young and trendy, don’t miss H&M, an inexpensive clothing conglomerate that now boasts Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld as a designer. If your Charlottesville pad is due for an update, Short Pump also has Crate and Barrel and Williams Sonoma, which are known for well-designed, affordable kitchen and house wares. But buyer beware, Short Pump does not have a bookstore, so leave your reading list at home.—Anne Metz

To get to Short Pump Town Center: Take Route 64 East to exit 178A, Short Pump Broad Street West. Go approximately 1 1/8 mile. Mall is on the right.

 

Hole lotta love
The popular Sugar Hollow hideaway is best mid-week

Leaping into an icy mountain stream is simply the most exhilarating way to keep cool in the summer. The thrill is even sweeter when you should be at work.

   Most Charlottesvillians know about Blue Hole—the Sugar Hollow hideaway halfway up Turk Mountain, where the South Fork of the Moormans River has carved out a sweet little pool. Officially, the City of Charlottesville owns that land and prohibits swimming there, but that doesn’t seem to deter many people.

   In fact, on a hot July Saturday Blue Hole can be too crowded for comfort. Privacy, after all, is half the charm of a mountain swimming hole. It’s hard to commune with nature when a pair of teenagers are French kissing on the fallen log (right next to your stuff!), and somebody’s fat dad is standing on the rock above you like a hairy, overfed Greg Louganis, poised to perform a perfect belly flop on your head. It’s enough to make the city pool—kid pee and all—seem attractive by comparison.

   That’s why the best time to take the plunge is when everyone else is punching the clock. Craft your alibi the night before—plan on feeling ill, taking your car in for repairs or set up an imaginary appointment. The next morning, ease your guilt by working extra hard. Then, once the sun gets high and the day starts heating up, make your break for the hills. The best part about playing hooky at Blue Hole is that the only way anyone can catch you is if he’s playing hooky, too.

   Blue Hole isn’t the only good swimming hole around here, but self-interest dictates that we keep those to ourselves!

   Playing hooky in a clear, cold stream is a deliciously irresponsible thrill, but can we end on a grown-up note? Don’t leave your soda cans and food wrappers to spoil someone else’s day off of work.—John Borgmeyer

To get to Blue Hole: Go west on Barracks/ Garth Road and make a left on to Sugar Hollow Road (Route 614) in White Hall. Continue past the reservoir until you find the unofficial parking area. Cross the river and follow the old fire road that heads west.

 

Get your motor running
Take a drive to Warm Springs

There’s a great scene in the early ’90s classic Singles in which Campbell Scott’s character tries to convince Kyra Sedgwick’s character that a super train could cut it in Seattle. Sedgwick’s character smiles politely and says something like, “Yeah, but I still love my car.”

   Word. Blather on about cars vs. bikes vs. mass transit vs. the Starship Enterprise: I like my car…

   …because it gets me the hell out of this burg on my clock. A little weekday game of hooky—with a little wind in the hair and a lot of oldies on the radio—is a big vacation from the daily grind. So tell the boss you’ve got cramps, fill up the tank and hit the road, Jackie.

   The options are endless. But me, I’m bougie. I like baths, skin treatments and a nice glass of wine. Thus, I drive west to Warm Springs and Hot Springs, The Homestead’s two virtual company towns.

   Heading to Warm Springs, after taking Route 64W to Staunton, screw the highway and gun it into the back roads of Augusta and Bath counties. Turn off the AC and roll down the windows because it doesn’t get much better than this, folks. Fresh mountain air, country stores, cows, tractors going 10 miles an hour in front of you, and a brand new countryscape around every bend.

   After Staunton, take Route 254W to Buffalo Gap. Turn south on Route 42, hang a right at Goshen onto Route 39W and drive for about 15 miles ’til you pass two round white clapboard buildings nestled in a grove of trees by the side of the road. Inside are The Jefferson Pools: naturally warm spring mineral baths that were once graced with the exalted presence of Mr. Jefferson’s very own naked ass.

   Nudity is highly recommended. So for modesty’s sake, there’s one bathhouse for the gentlemen (built in 1761) and one for the ladies (built in 1836). It’s owned and operated by the pricey Homestead, and you can shell out a mere $15 to soak for an hour, towels included. Shell out an additional $50 to $95 and add a massage.

   For extra pampering, meander another five miles south to The Homestead itself. Life’s a tad more expensive in this neck of the woods (a pedicure runs $95) but wander the grounds and at the very least, order an appetizer and glass of vino at one of the hotel restaurants. Indulgence works up quite the appetite.

   My guarantee, dear readers? By 9am the next morning, Ms. New Attitude will be back on the job. Cramps? What cramps? —Nell Boeschenstein

 

The Pig looks fine
Go here when the day says, “Barbecue”

 You wouldn’t be the first to play hooky at Blue Ridge Pig. The walls of the Nellysford restaurant—a glorified barbecue shack, really—are covered with hundreds of business cards from WVIR Channel 29, VMDO Architects, the IRS, the City of Charlottesville, etc. A dozen or so are crammed into door-jambs, a dozen or so more tacked to the plywood ceiling. One hand-written note stuck underneath a support post’s inches-long splinter thanks the owners for a tour of the barbecue pits.

   Lucky devil. But really, a tour of the premises isn’t necessary. You’ll learn all you need to know about the Blue Ridge Pig’s legendary BBQ by sampling the spot’s limited but hearty menu, scrawled in chalk on a flimsy piece of black-painted wood. The Pig mostly sticks to the basics—barbecue pork and beef sandwiches, ribs and chicken available by the sandwich, plate or pound—with a few surprises like the turkey croissant, which was so inviting it compelled our vegetarian friend to eat meat (no kidding).

   We, however, went with the classic pulled pork. Loaded on a toasted Kaiser bun wrapped in tin foil and served in a Styrofoam container, the tender meat is soaked with a sauce that marries the best of the red and white barbecue dynasties. The rich, smoky flavor that comes only from hours of preparation infuses every bite, and the subtle but potent kick reminds you that good barbecue is hard to find. The plate also comes with a creamy blended potato salad and savory baked beans, all for $7.40.

   Take your pick of eating indoors or outside, the better to take in the glorious Nelson County setting. Make plans to hike through the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains some day; wait for a beat, mock your lazy ass and then go back for seconds.

   If you sit inside, boogie to Oldies tunes like “Midnight Train to Georgia” on the radio and try to count the number of pig-themed stuffed animals and figurines. Try not to let the gigantic fake snowman in the side dining room freak you out.

   The best part of the Blue Ridge Pig hooky experience is that, with Nelson in the middle of nowhere, your boss will never find you there—unless she’s playing hooky, too. If that’s the case, buy her a BBQ pork plate, sing along to Gladys and the Pips—and make sure you both leave your business cards.—Eric Rezsnyak

To get to Blue Ridge Pig: Take 250 West, and turn left on Route 151 just before the Nelson County line. Follow Route 151 past the cows, horses and…Pilates studios of Nelson until you hit Nellysford. The Pig will be on your left, and is open daily 11am to 8pm.

 

Baby, it’s cold inside
Hide at the Ice Park when it’s time to play hooky with the kids

The idea seemed oxymoronic to me. Play hooky with my children? As a semi-employed mother of two young daughters, my idea of a sneaky escape usually entails some alone time reading the newspaper, getting a pedicure or strolling the Downtown Mall without a 5-year-old hanging off my back.

   It was, however, on one of those recent strolls that my daughters and I found ourselves in front of the Charlottesville Ice Park. We’d just made the trek from the Central Library, and were overheated and cranky. Instead of doing the responsible thing and trudging on toward our parked car, I hooked a left and announced, “We’re going ice skating.”

   Never mind that five minutes earlier I’d previewed the afternoon’s schedule: a trip to the grocery store, a stop at the dry cleaners, bedroom tidy-ups and some serious desk time for my eldest daughter and me. Neither child questioned the abrupt change in plans. Mom’s obviously lost it, the looks on their faces said, but this sure beats filling a cart at Harris Teeter.

   While the Ice Park’s public skating hours vary daily, there’s almost always a two- or three-hour weekday afternoon block where the ice is open to everyone. On that particular day, it was all ours until 4pm. We hadn’t come equipped with mittens or sweaters, but no matter: The rink’s temperature is kept between 55 and 60 degrees.

   After a few shaky loops, my youngest daughter felt confident enough to abandon me for a party of bucket-pushing smaller children on center ice. My 8-year-old took her place, and the two of us careened, hand-in-hand, around the rink. We practiced our hockey stops and had a skating backwards competition. Exhausted but happy after too many laps to count, all three of us exited the ice, turned in our skates and hit the snack bar for an early dinner of French fries, nachos, mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce, hot chocolate and funnel cake.

   On the way out, I asked the guy behind the skate rental desk if the Ice Park’s birthday party room could be rented for other kinds of events, like, say, a mommy happy hour. “Ah, sure,” he said dubiously, and I immediately began planning my next hooky-with-the-kids afternoon. Except this time it would include a few other mothers, a good bottle of wine and some snacks from my favorite gourmet market.—Susan Sorensen

The Charlottesville Ice Park is located on the west end of the Downtown Mall. A schedule of public skate times is published at the beginning of every month at icepark.com. Admission is $6 on weekdays. Skate rental is $1.50. Kids 5 and under get in for $2.75, and skate rental is 25 cents. Call 817-2400 for more information.

 

Star-spangled blather
Mr. Right sets C-VILLE straight about summer’s patriotic holidays

C-VILLE: Good morning, Mr. Right. We’ve asked you here today to discuss the summer holidays, most of which have a patriotic theme. And that leads me to my first question: Would you describe yourself as a Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Mr. Right: Yes, I would say I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy, a Yankee Doodle do or die. I’ve even been known to stick a feather in my hat and call it macaroni. That doesn’t refer to pasta, by the way. Back in pre-revolutionary days, macaroni was a word for a fancy form of Italian dress that the British were infatuated with. By sticking a feather in his hat and calling it macaroni, Yankee Doodle was putting on airs, though with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

 

I take it the British aren’t big fans of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

No, they still haven’t completely forgiven us for that whole declaration-of-independence thing, which is fine, because we still haven’t completely forgiven them for that whole taxation-without-representation thing. It must be especially galling to them that the Fourth of July is such a success. All they’ve got is, like, Guy Fawkes Day. Who, in the name of God Bless America, is Guy Fawkes?

 

Heck if I know. But back to our own holidays. What do you make of the fact that all our patriotic holidays seem to cluster together in the summer months? Did the Founding Fathers plan it that way?

The Founding Fathers were too busy working out a more perfect union to spend very much time on three-day weekends. No, most of these holidays originated later, as a result of pressure being applied by pressure groups. Even the Fourth of July took a while to get started. Most people don’t know that the Fourth of July wasn’t the day we declared our independence, “we” being the Second Continental Congress. That actually happened on the Second of July. What happened on the Fourth of July was the formal adoption of the document penned by Thomas Jefferson. Fine, so a year later two members of Congress had the bright idea of celebrating the anniversary of Independence Day, but they didn’t have their bright idea until the Third of July, by which time the Second of July was starting to smell like yesterday’s news. So they went with the Fourth of July instead.

 

So, to return to my original question, you make nothing of the fact that all our patriotic holidays seem to cluster during the summer?

Not all of them do. There’s President’s Day, which has never quite recovered from expanding beyond George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to include all the presidents. Let’s hear it for Grover Cleveland! And Richard Nixon! In February!

   If our patriotic holidays cluster during the summer months, that can probably be attributed to the fact that it’s very difficult to grill out during the winter months—not impossible, but difficult. It’s also difficult to hold a parade unless you’re in California or Florida. And there’s nothing to do on Monday, which is increasingly what our patriotic holidays are all about—coming up with ways to fill a day on which, had not millions of our fellow Americans laid down their lives in the name of freedom and democracy, we would be schlepping off to work.

 

This Monday is Memorial Day. Talk about it a little.

Well, it’s not my favorite holiday, and I’ll tell you why: It’s just so damn humbling. Those who have sacrificed their lives for our country deserve, at the very least, to be remembered until the end of time, their names sewn into our hearts with golden thread. Instead, they’re kind of shunted off to the side. I mean, when was the last time you showed up at the local cemetery for the wreath-laying ceremony? And one of the reasons for this, I think, is that the rest of us feel guilty. Too busy watching “CSI: Wichita” on TV, we’ve asked not what we could do for our country but what our country could do for us. Or the other way around. I always get that one mixed up.

 

The thing about death is, it’s a bummer.

All the more reason to acknowledge its dominion. There’s something kind of screwy about a country that will tune in to the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, secretly hoping for a fiery crash, then skip Memorial Day services on Monday morning. With the Indy 500, there’s merely the possibility of death. With Memorial Day services, there’s a virtual guarantee. And each and every one of those stories, from the guy who literally froze to death during the Battle of the Bulge to the guy who caught a bullet in the back of the head on the streets of Baghdad, will absolutely break your heart. What Memorial Day services need are fewer speeches and more stories.

 

How long has Memorial Day been around?

Since right after the Civil War. There’s an old-wives tale about some old wives—Confederate widows—who went to a Southern cemetery where soldiers from both the North and South were buried and placed flowers on all the graves. And who knows, the story may even be true. But the fact is, some two dozen communities across the United States have fought for the right to be called the birthplace of Memorial Day—not to the point of declaring war on one another, mind you, but to the point of casting doubts on any individual claim.

 

Moving on, how has the Fourth of July….

You forgot Flag Day.

 

I beg your pardon?

You forgot Flag Day. Between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July is Flag Day, and the reason I know that is because it happens to be my birthday. For years, I thought people displayed their flags on June 14 in honor of my birthday, as if they sensed a future political career that might carry me all the way to the White House. Call it irony, but I do happen to live in a white house, albeit one with green trim and a water heater that’s on its last leg.

 

What’s Flag Day all about?

I’m glad you asked. Flag Day is the day on which we salute the flag. Not literally, per se, but metaphorically. Technically speaking, it’s the anniversary of the day on which Congress passed a resolution specifying what our country’s flag should look like. (This was on June 14, 1777, for you history buffs.) But mostly it’s just an excuse to wrap ourselves in the gently waving folds of Old Glory.

 

You sound like a true believer.

I suppose I am, but not in the way you might imagine. To me, the flag is nothing but a symbol, and an open-ended symbol at that. As far as I’m concerned, you can spit on it, stomp on it, shred it, burn it or use it to wipe your butt. And I will defend to the death your right to commit these desecrations.

 

To the death?

Well, to minor bodily harm. One of the things I love the most about this country is that we’re not obligated by law to either salute the flag or pledge allegiance to it. And it’s perfectly legal to burn it. The guys down at the VFW hall may not agree with me on this, but I sometimes think the most patriotic thing you could do on Flag Day is exercise your First Amendment right to torch one, thereby proving that we do still live in the land of the free, the home of
the brave.

 

So, you believe in dissent.

Very much so. My motto is, “America: Love It or Leaflet.”

 

We’re running out of time, so maybe you could tell me what you like the most about the Fourth of July.

What I like the most is that so many millions of Americans are willing to break the law in order to get their hands on some Roman candles. I also like the strawberry shortcake.

 

And Labor Day?

What I like the most about Labor Day is that, despite its name, nobody gets a lick of work done. Labor Day began as a show of union strength—this was in the 1880s—and in the early years employers were reluctant to let their employees have the day off. So the unions wound up having to dock their members a day’s pay for working on Labor Day. God, I love this country.

 

Do you see 9/11 becoming a national holiday?

Not unless Pearl Harbor Day becomes a national holiday. We don’t tend to celebrate our defeats, which explains why, say, the Tet Offensive is a bigger deal in Vietnam than it is here. Now you know how the British feel about the Fourth of July.

 

That leaves Veteran’s Day, which isn’t really a summer holiday. Any thoughts?

For me, Veteran’s Day is Father’s Day. My father was a veteran of World War II, and I carry his dog tags on my keychain to remind me of that. Like so many members of the Greatest Generation, he didn’t like to talk about what happened to him over there—“over there” being France and Germany. But whatever happened, it formed a dark cloud that hung over him the rest of his life. We can never repay the debt we owe to the men and women who’ve braved the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, so the least we can do is show up and listen to those boring speeches.

 

Is that it, then?

Unless you want me to start warbling “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Speaking of which, did you know that the music for our national anthem was lifted from an old British drinking song? For all we know, some patriotic Vietnamese are right now invoking their hard-won freedom to the tune of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Serves us right.

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