History–military, Civil War, slavery; a functioning lighthouse; mile-long views of the Chesapeake; a luxury retirement community housed in the Chamberlin, a once stately hotel–all attractions that draw visitors to Fort Monroe, Virginia. For me the pull is personal. It was home, my first in the United States. I took baby steps into the working world there. In my teens, it was the place of early ventures into romance, a time when naive notions of love flooded heart and mind, crashed on the shores of reality but in the end, surfaced muddied but also (a little) stronger and wiser.
Shortly before Christmas, I visited my sister-in-law, Connie, in Newport News. One day, while she courted carpal tunnel in a last-ditch effort to address nearly 100 cards, I headed to Fort Monroe. Once a military site, it now belongs in part to the National Park Service as well as the Fort Monroe Authority. Occupying a prime location – at the entrance to Hampton Roads – the star-shaped, moat-surrounded fort is long on history.
Within the fortification are the Casemate museum (Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned here), soldiers’ garrison and officer’s quarters and the Lincoln Gun. At the intersection of East Gate and Bernard Road sits”Quarters #1″, the house in which President Abraham Lincoln stayed as he (and others) “planned the attack on Norfolk.”
The second oldest lighthouse in the Virginia area stands guard here: the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse. Activated in 1803, it guides ships as they navigate through the channel. In spring of 1862 it witnessed the fight between ironclads Monitor and Merrimack. It also stood watch as thousands of contraband slaves flocked to the fort. Some, when first seeing the lighthouse, no doubt saw it as a symbol of hope on the road to freedom.
In the late 1960s, Mom, who worked in a factory in Nuremberg, Germany , met then married my step-dad, an Army soldier. I was in my early teens when, in spring 1970, our family reported to Fort Monroe.
Then, the fort was a small but active community of soldiers and civilians. In 2011 Fort Monroe was decommissioned. When I heard the news it felt akin to hearing a treasured friend was terminally ill, the future uncertain. Yet, like a good friend, I had to visit often to observe, watch for changes and hope for recovery. Last year I thrilled to discover the fort is now part of the National Park Service.
Since its decommission the fort has suffered neglect. But signs of life, present and past, remain. Bird-feeders hang from trees, toys litter a yard and dogs bark. Near the church, at Ruckman Road, houses stand empty and decaying: dust coats windows; ironwork rusts; wood pillars rot. A door-bell at # 4 begs testing. Last December, when I pushed, a harsh ring surprised no one but me as it announced my presence to hollow rooms.
A stroll above the Casemate Museum shows evidence that four-legged family members also lived and were loved here: Glueck (Lucky), Schnapps, Fritz and Jefferson Davis Talbot are just a few of many whose spirit remains at the fort.
Along Gulick Drive, where the seawall serves as barrier and promenade, grass grows where once stood brick houses, homes to enlisted families. Water-front property is pricey. Looking back, I know my luck; where else but Fort Monroe would a Sergeant’s home afford top benefits.
Sea-salt stained and winds battered the slowly corroding red brick. In winter, Mom’s curtains fluttered as cold air crept through thin windows. Despite these, we had front-row views. We watched cargo ships and sailboats, submarines and aircraft carriers come and go. I spent hours scrambling over a nearby jetty or gathering shells, chasing seagulls and sand-crabs on a sliver of beach.
I took baby steps into the world of work here. Babysitting showed the joys and pains of it—money earned but at the expense of me fighting sleep while parents enjoyed a few hours of freedom. Fortunately, at a small post, stumbling home in the dark was done in minutes.
One dark and not-stormy night gave occasion for my first encounter with romance. Thanks to a black “Rebel without a cause”, a brief moment in time still has me puzzled.
I had a crush on our neighbors’ son, Wendell, a senior in high school and Sammy Davis, Jr., look-alike– dark, slender and bow-legged. He, being “cool” (always in black, with a swagger, and when not puffing Kools, kept a toothpick tucked in his mouth), barely gave me a glance. One evening, while Mom visited Mrs. Cuffey, Wendell invited me to his room. I was thrilled–alone with a boy! What did we talk about? I don’t remember. Looking back, I wonder: What was Mom thinking to allow me in his room? We had nothing in common. Pity, ego, boredom, were these the reasons he tolerated a 15-year-old’s fumbling small-talk? No matter. He leaned in and kissed me. The next day I was once again –puff, magic —invisible.
What’s my memory of the momentous occasion? Seconds before a thorough tongue exploratory the ever-present toothpick hung from his lips; I didn’t see him remove it. So,
…what happened to that damn toothpick?
1972 brought a new assignment. I said Good-Bye Wendell, Hello Okinawa.
A decade later I, an Airman, was assigned to Langley Air Force Base, 10 miles from Fort Monroe. In the wake of a recent divorce, l was disillusioned and in debt. To escape my worries I often drove to the fort, seeking comfort by the sea.
Long ago, I thought I’d never return. But I find myself haunting Fort Monroe. Like ships returning to harbor, when it calls out to me I answer. It’s there that time slows, light shines on the past and fond memories lift me up. As I leave and Fort Monroe is reflected in my mirrors, I am comforted by my friend. It endures, remains steadfast and can be certain that I will come home.
For more details and history on Fort Monroe, please visit the following links:
Smithsonia.com – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fort-monroes-lasting-place-in-history-25923793/ – Fort Monroe’s Lasting Place in History
African-American Registry; http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/african-slaves-arrive-point-comfort-hampton-va
Daily Press; The Chamberlin Hotel – http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/dp-nws-hotel-chamberlin-anniversary-20160404-story.html — Hotel Chamberlin boosted Hampton resort’s status