As published in the book, Ordinary Fathers, Extraordinary Children, by Ken Maupin
I will always treasure a gift that my father gave to my siblings and me. What he gave us could never be purchased in a store or ordered from a catalog. It can’t be wrapped or put into a box. In fact, it won’t even fit under a Christmas tree. What he gave us was a passion for US history. An enthusiasm for exploring places not seen. A curiosity about the diverse geography and culture that our country offers. Every year, our family of six would pile into the Ford station wagon and take a three- to four- week cross-country road trip. On most of the trips we camped -- which created additional memories to embellish the experience. There were other things that he might have preferred to do with his valuable vacation time, but taking us kids to battlefields and monuments and seashores and mountains was his great desire. By the time we each started High School, my dad had made sure that we had each been to all 48 of the contiguous states. And in the process, we visited most of the US National Parks (as they were at the time) and an unnumbered plethora of historic and geographic sites.
Personally, these trips brought US history and geography alive. I was the oldest child and got to start going on the family trips early in life. They were so much fun; I remember anxiously awaiting dad’s dinner table announcement each Spring where he would excitedly share what/where we would be going on that summer’s trip. And then I would look forward to them for months. There was so much to see in the United States. From the lush tropics of south Florida to the arid, dusty deserts of the southwest. From the history of Benedict Arnold capturing Fort Ticonderoga, New York, without firing a single shot, to Cape Disappointment, Oregon, where Lewis and Clark spied their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. I eventually made it to them all.
My experiences with my dad on these trips seem endless. As a child, for example, I became very interested in George Custer and had read several books about him, the Sioux Indians and the US 7th Cavalry. I vividly remember the car trip where my dad took us to Custer Battlefield National Monument (now Little Bighorn National Monument). Sure, there were books and maps and pictures and dioramas that all helped to tell the story of that fateful “Last Stand.” But, to this day, 30 something years later, I still remember how awe struck I was when I stepped my small foot onto that battlefield as an 8-year old boy -- onto the actual ground that Autie Custer had stood and fatefully fought. And there I saw for myself how small that grassy knoll actually was. The place where the core of the slaughter of the entire 7th Cavalry took place was no larger than half a football field. 265 soldiers versus upwards of 4000 angry Sioux Indians. I just stood there in silent wonder, trying to put all the pieces of that day together in my own childlike way, at the side of the knoll next to the very marker where Custer fell and had died. The day unfolded before me in my mind’s eye. I remember having to wipe tears from my eyes.
Later, I remember seeing my first Civil War ironclad boat. The first submarines. It was the Cairo, dredged from the bottom of the Mississippi River. It was nearly 150 feet long! Not 15 or 20. Not even 25. But almost one hundred and fifty feet long! I distinctly remember from my Junior High history book that ironclads were small, cramped vessels seating only three to five naval soldiers. I remember the pictures and drawings in the books like it was yesterday. I felt like my textbook had cheated me out of the opportunity to fully appreciate the significance of those boats. Seeing history was for me, stepping back and, in reflection, becoming it. It was so much more exciting to me than reading about it. My dad knew that about me.
I grew older and, as a teenager, became less interested in history and geography and more interested in what I call “The Age of the Fumes;” car fumes and girls’ perfumes. My dad kept inviting me on the trips that he continued to take the rest of the family on, but I always came up with an excuse to stay behind. It was my loss, but I did not understand why at the time. I eventually went away to college and shortly after graduating got married. Then, soon after our first child had entered public school, my wife and I made the decision to home school our kids. This decision put my wife and I in the challenging position to educate our children in the subjects of (among other things) US history and geography. But it was not hard for me to quickly recall that passion for travel and being there that my father had developed in me years before.
And so, in my father’s footsteps, my wife and I, and our kids started to visit battlefields and monuments and seashores and mountains. As a family, we now make a point to study a place or event in history and then go see it. We have taken cross-country road trips every year since 1992. Ironically, we, too, started taking our trips in a Ford. We have followed the Oregon Trail. We have stood on the ground that took Davy Crockett’s life at the Alamo. We’ve studied the tropics and sat in an idle Everglades jet boat in the middle of a marsh surrounded by hungry and curious alligators. We followed the route commissioned by Thomas Jefferson when he challenged Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to map the Louisiana Purchase.
We’ve watched in the evening as fishing boats would come in with the day’s catch at Bar Harbor, Maine. We stood on the historic, tired and worn floor of Independence Hall where George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (et al) settled on the document that would make America a free nation. My kids have walked in the footsteps of Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp on the dirty and dusty streets of Tombstone, Arizona, “The Town too Tough to Die.” Our schooling took us to the windy cape where the Wright Brothers made that historic, first, 120 foot long flight.
My kids have seen the deepest US Canyon (Grand Canyon), the longest US suspension bridge (Mackinaw, Michigan), the tallest US lighthouse (Cape Hatteras Light, North Carolina) and the oldest city (St. Augustine, Florida). The largest waterfall (Niagra Falls, Canada). The tallest geyser (Old Faithful, Yellowstone, Wyoming). They have been in the deepest mine (Tower-Soudan, Minnesota). Seen the largest and most complicated piece of machinery ever built (Saturn 5B rocket at Kennedy Space Center, Florida). And visited the site of one of America’s greatest tragedies, the Oklahoma City Bombing. From the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the Keys of Florida, my wife and I have enjoyed stimulating in our children that passion for learning about such things that my father stimulated in me.
Our oldest child has been to 48 of the states. The youngest two to only 47 (but we do have a trip planned to Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War started – that will bring all the kids to at least 48 states). My wife and I are holding at 49, knowing Alaska will be our final family state adventure. Together. My father never took me to Alaska; but I will be able to finish with my family what he started in his.
As a father, I now understand that passion of my father. There is something genuine, something that validates history, when you can actually stand in the middle of a place like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Stand where Abraham Lincoln gave his most famous speech. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the words, “Four score and seven years….” And there is something very special and rewarding about seeing your kids experience these adventures. To watch their eyes light up, quite literally, when they see how small the sailing vessel Mayflower actually is, …that carried the original 100 Americans to America. I will never forget the words of my youngest, my overly enthusiastic son, as he ran up to the edge of the Grand Canyon. Seeing it for the first time, he managed to find the words, “Golly,…it’s a lot bigger [ulp] than I thought!” Teetering right on the edge of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the look of impression on his face was priceless.
Similar were the exuberant words of my daughter as we arrived in the year 1626 at Plimoth, Massachusetts. “I’m soooo excited to be here,” she said. To bring that desire to my kids to want to see and experience history, culture and geography has been more rewarding than it was experiencing it for myself. True, I have already been to all these places, but watching my kids makes these recent trips more precious than the ones before. I am sure those are the feelings that my dad must have experienced, too.
For most of this month, my father has been lying, unresponsive, in an Intensive Care Unit in southern Ohio, struggling through the recovery of a second stroke. I now thank my dad for all of those memories and of those trips. For generating in me the desire to want to know more, to see more, and to experience more. And to want to pass that on to my own kids. I am pretty sure that I never thanked my dad at the time. I hope that he will recover so that I can get the chance. My life had been changed in ways I could not imagine at the time, for I would not know the real value of those family vacation experiences until I would have kids of my own. And I believe he is proud to know that his grandkids are following his footsteps through history.
Are we there yet? From a father’s perspective, we are not. We won’t have completed the journey until I see my children share their developing passion for history and travel in my grand children. And then it will come alive for me again.
Thanks, so much, dad.
Written about two weeks before his passing, in the hospice, this letter was from our kids to Ken's father.