So now I was at George Washington’s Revolutionary era headquarters in the dilapidated downtown area of Newburgh, New York. About 20 parents and children were packed tightly into what used to be Washington’s dining room. Washington spent 16 and a half months here with his wife and troops waiting for the Paris Peace Treaty to be signed, officially ending the war.
“Thaddeus,” a re-enactor in period clothes, entertained a group of six children huddled around a glass partition. It separated him from the audience and cut the old stone dining room in half. He made “Jim,” a tap-dancing wooden figure with boat-like feet, go from a Washington One-Step into a Tuscaloosa Two-Step. The children smiled and clapped along. Purple Heart veterans in bright purple jackets patrolled the room like geriatric bouncers, guiding wandering children back to their parents and diligently guarding the fake rubber pork chops on the dining room table.
I vaguely remembered going here in 5th or 6th grade, but the whole thing was mushy and distorted in my memory. Our class walked in single file and left the same way. We couldn’t touch anything. I remember our teacher lined us up by height. There was a boring gift shop. I made a joke about how we all could have been standing in George Washington’s horses’ poop at that very moment. Besides that it was all blank. Educational trips never left much of an impression on me. But now I feel deprived. I mean, Washington was a pretty important guy. This was where he announced the end of the Revolutionary War to his troops and where he drafted the letter rejecting the idea of an “American Monarchy“. He and Martha and all his slaves kicked back here for more than a year. Aside from the headquarters, most things of historic value in Newburgh had been razed years ago. We are now a city of high crime and no past.
I needed some air and saw a window on the other side of the room. To get there, I walked directly in front of a row of children clapping maniacally along with “Thaddeus” to “15 Miles on the Erie Canal.” Their mothers shot angry looks in my direction.
I stared out the window, thinking how George Washington himself had glanced out it over 200 years ago. I saw three young men dressed as colonial cantonment soldiers outside. As they tried to twirl their 6 foot-long bayonets, I wondered how they didn’t impale themselves instead of just knocking their tri-corner hats off their heads. Beyond them was a tree line separating us from the rest of Newburgh, a thin barrier between history and reality.
I turned to find the room mostly empty and a chunky crowd heading to the next room of the unguided tour. I now had to wait through three more renditions of “Jim” tap dancing drunkenly between “Thaddeus’” thighs before I squeezed into the next room. By that point, the re-enactor had already finished regaling his audience with Washington’s most heroic tales and military coups: chopping down the cherry tree, crossing the Delaware and wrestling Babe the Blue Ox to make Camp Crystal Lake. To my disappointment, this was just the male secretary room, quills and desks. A sharp-nosed mother walked up to a faux colonial who was in the middle of telling me about how his real passion was science.
“What’s that big building outside?” she said, stepping right up to the velvet rope separating us and the historic secretary pool.
“Which one? There’s the museum and then there’s…”
“The monument,” she said quickly, speaking like he might actually be from 1782.
“Oh, that’s the Tower of Victory. It was built in 1888 and to commemorate…”
I tuned out and headed toward the door. A Tower of Victory . . . in Newburgh? For as long as I have lived here, Newburgh has always had an atmosphere of foreboding. My mom will not let my brother walk the three blocks to school because of fights and muggings. Newburgh has consistently had one of the highest crime rates in New York for 30 years. Most historic buildings had been bulldozed in the 1970s for an urban renewal campaign that ran out of support (see: money) halfway through.
The Tower of Victory stood about three stories tall and overlooked the partially frozen Hudson River. Officially, the Tower was “a monument to peace erected 1886-1897 to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s accomplishments while headquartered at Newburgh” according to its Web site. It was a big, white stone, boxed archway, an Arc de Triomphe on a less grandiose scale. It stood alone, away from the headquarters, in a squishy field of brown mud. Children were playing tag there; no doubt building up copious amounts of mud to spread diligently in Martha’s nicely swept home. Bronze soldiers perched at the top of the tower stood triumphantly, there chests puffed out and sabers held strong to the sky. The stones themselves were as big as my arm, hewn roughly as if chipped away by giants. I felt nervous as I approached it, as if one of the old purple hearted guards was going to blitz me for getting to close.
I walked under the arch and gazed upward. The wooden roof was damaged and you could see dull patches of gray sky through the holes.