Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Naval Academy Romancing

The ladyfriend and I have not gotten a good field trip in for a long time. My dad getting killed by a left-turning truck driver just before Christmas and then us buying a house and moving into it just after the holidays really put a dent in our ability to, you know, chill. We saw that long weekend on the calendar for Valentine's Day, checked the ol' bank account, and made plans for a romantic getaway that would have nothing to do with mourning or moving. And that meant a tourist trip to Annapolis and a cheap room across from the Best Buy on Housely Road.

I'm a nerd, the ladyfriend's a nerd, and she gets all hot and bothered watching me nerd out, so I started our tour of Annapolis at the Naval Academy Museum where I hoped the historical facts combined with glimpses of that tight white uniform would set a proper mood. We pulled up to the stop the googleymap gave us and were turned away for lack of security clearance—how hot would it have been if I'd secured us security clearance? Alas, we were told to go back to the road, turn left, turn left again, and drive to the end, which we did, and then we got frustrated about where to park, and I was reminded again that there's nothing romantic about cars.

Things turned around as we approached the Visitor's Center and were informed that we would need to show our ID, and if our ID was issued by one of a number of states (including the ladyfriend's home state of Missouri), we'd need a second ID—intrigue! Turns out as of October, federal military sites are enforcing 2005's REAL ID Act. This act required state identification cards to incorporate certain security features, and not all states have got their IDs up to par. That got me thinking about state's rights, federalism, and how we're still fighting over it all. Sure, no one is about to secede so they can keep slavery at the center of their economies, but we're regularly battling over whether the federal government can tell states they have to use some of their cash to insure their residents, how states will educate their citizens, and who is going to pay whom to graze on federal lands. This was a quick moment at the front gate, but it was a good reminder that we're treading in these debates all the time. Nothing gets my blood hotter than a little historical context: mood rising!

The visitor center had its own displays, and I tried to get it up to concentrate long enough to learn something new. I could blame this on grief—concentration has never been my strong suit, and mourning pretty much sapped it away entirely. It has been two months, and that's not a long time, at least not in my mourning world. I'm still incredibly sad and operating at about 10 percent of my normal capacity. That said, I'm not sure that even at my best I'd be able to pay attention to stories about John Paul Jones, 18th-century naval pioneer. I watched a video about him for 20 seconds and wandered away to a wall of pictures of astronauts. Apparently a lot of Naval Academy grads go on to become astronauts—best selling point of the day.

A short 15-minute video about the weird traditions of Naval Academy life later and we were walking across the grounds to the museum, past the monument to submarines, the other side of the chapel where John Paul Jones is buried in a casket that looks like it's riding waves. We were greeted by a volunteer who gave us a quick rundown of the place: naval history on the outside ring, history of the Naval Academy on the inside, model ships upstairs. I of course wanted to head straight upstairs, but the ladyfriend is a completist who starts at the beginning, so that's what I did too.

I'm glad I did. I may not have been able to pay attention to the stories of John Paul Jones or any of the other amazing naval minds getting their own exhibits at this place, but it was surprisingly interesting to learn about the development of the Navy. Turns out it was all about protecting capital and commerce, which appears to be the same thing as The Nation, if you pay attention to the history. Early naval officers were pulled from the shipping industry and pressed into service to protect their own markets. The museum didn't tell the story this way, focusing instead on particular officers and particular battles, but reading between the lines was a reminder that national defense has, in this case anyway, always been about protecting the business of the moneyed class.

I continued around the museum looking for the things I always look for. Do they mention slavery anywhere? It is, after all, the founding condition of the nation, and the slave trade was certainly a high-seas affair. The same sneaky clipper ships that patrolled our shores during war smuggled enslaved people after the ban of the international slave trade was passed in 1807. They had an exhibit about the Civil War, but alas, no mention of slavery at all. I wondered how that history might change the way the history of the Navy is told.

It felt good to feel curious, a sign of life amid the steady sadness, but my capacity for concentration had already peaked. I wandered around aimlessly as the ladyfriend made her determined way through the museum until it was time to head to the hotel to watch cable television—the real reason we like to stay in hotels—until our Valentine's dinner at the Thai restaurant in the strip mall next to the Safeway up the block. We got the sticky rice with mango to go, ate it in bed with some HGTV, a bit more my speed these days. Lucky me to have someone willing to slow down with me for a while and tuck in.

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