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A Weekend with Washington

I would like to thank Holiday Inn for partnering with me to make this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own!  Kris Williams

 

For some time now, Alexandria, Virginia has been one of my favorite destinations in the United States. Located on the western bank of the Potomac River, the city is just a short drive or train ride to the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C.

From the art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and antique shops of it’s historic center, “Old Town” to the cobblestone streets lined with 18th and 19th century architecture – complete with gas lanterns and American flags – Alexandria is one of those special places that will steal your heart.

Unlike all my previous stays in Alexandria (which revolved around work in D.C.) this trip with Holiday Inn put Alexandria front and center as I set out to get better acquainted with the man we refer to as the father of our country.

With the Fourth of July just around the corner, I would like to share with you my favorite stops in Alexandria that were once a part of George Washington’s stomping grounds.

 

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial

Built to honor the memory of George Washington, his role as a free mason and as a way to preserve the heritage of American Freemasonry – The George Washington Masonic National Memorial left me feeling as though I had entered a Greek or Roman temple.

The Memorial Hall was striking with its eight large granite columns leading you down to an enormous statue of George Washington. There he stood presiding over the hall – gavel in hand while wearing his Masonic apron and jewel. I cannot stress how small I felt in this room or how drawn I was to the statue and colorful murals that lined the walls.

  Not far from Memorial Hall was the Replica Lodge Room – a room designed to look like Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 which was once located on the 2nd floor of City Hall. This room mimics the lodge Washington used to attend and displays furniture from the original location along with artifacts that once belonged to Washington himself.

From the Replica Lodge Room we made our way up to The George Washington Museum. Besides the fact the room was another jaw dropper – some of the artifacts in this room that belonged to Washington were pretty impressive.

From his family bible (complete with signature) and items that traveled with him during the Revolutionary War – right down to a strand of his hair… I was wishing I had more time to look around.

I would say my one and only complaint with the tour is how quickly they would move you through each area.

Last stop at The George Washington Masonic National Memorial was the Observation Deck.

The view from the top was absolutely beautiful – I could not have asked for better weather. Not only could I see all of Alexandria, it was easy to spot the Capital Building and the Washington Monument in nearby D.C.!

 

George Washington’s Townhouse Replica

Located at 508 Cameron Street, wedged between two larger buildings, stands a replica of George Washington’s modest home away from home.

The original townhouse – designed, built and completed by Washington in 1796 – was used by George and Martha as an office and as a place to stay when visiting Alexandria for both business and social events.

After falling into disrepair in 1855, the residence was demolished and the lot was turned into a garden.

Later in 1960, lot owners Gov. and Mrs. Richard Lowe built a replica of Washington’s former townhouse based on rough sketches drawn by a neighbor. The structure was built on the original foundation using bricks and stones evacuated from the site.

Over the years, the property has had several owners but remains a private home and is known as Alexandria’s only replica of a historic building.

Although it’s only a replica, I enjoyed this stop quite a bit.

The first thing that struck me was how small the home was – it wasn’t the grand property you’d expect to be associated with a president.

To me, George Washington has always been this larger than life character – the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, a Revolutionary War hero, the first United States president and the father of our country.

While I knew he had Mount Vernon as his main home, the idea of such a successful historical figure staying in this humble little home put a smile on my face. For some reason, I found it easier to connect to him.

Beyond its size, it was fun to watch as many others stopped to have a look. Like me, they commented on the structures size and laughed when they spotted the plaster bust of George Washington peaking from the first floor window.

 

Christ Church

Located at the corner of N. Washington Street and Cameron Street, its hard to believe this little church was once referred to as, “The Church in the Woods”.

While the town of Alexandria has changed significantly since Washington’s time – Christ Church has not.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been additions, modifications or restoration efforts since it was completed in 1773 – they have just been minimal enough that you’re still able to see what Washington saw when he attended.

The biggest changes made over the years have been the addition of balcony seating with support columns, the replica wine glass podium, the silver candelabras and two memorial plaques – one for George Washington and the other for another famous attendee, Robert E. Lee.

Whenever Washington stayed at his Cameron Street townhouse for business or social events, he would attend Christ Church with his family.

Funny enough (in those times) it was common for attendees to buy or rent box pews. When I heard this, I immediately thought of someone buying box seats at a baseball stadium.

…Entertainment has certainly changed over the years.

As much as I loved this stop as a whole, I think the highlight of my visit was getting to sit in the pew that was once owned by Washington himself.

Yes, it is still there!

Getting to sit where he sat, where he worshiped and where he socialized… looking up at the podium – imagining the balconies and support columns, silver candelabras and plaques removed… looking around imagining people trying to read from their bibles using the sunlight that poured through wavy glass windows…

What a wild experience.

I will never get over opportunities like this and am so grateful historical structures like Christ Church are still standing.

 

Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant

Built in the late 1700’s the Gadsby’s Tavern consisted of two buildings – a tavern and hotel. Operated by John Gadsby from 1796 – 1808, Gadsby’s Tavern was the place to go in Alexandria for fine dinning, drinks (including the tavern’s famous – rum punch), social events and meetings, as well as a place to crash for the night.

George Washington was not only known for eating here – he and Martha Washington also attended two birthday celebrations that were held in his honor.

Today the two buildings function as a museum and a restaurant, serving lunch and dinner daily, along with Sunday brunch.

On one of my nights in town, I stopped into Gadsby’s for dinner and absolutely loved it. The first room I walked into had more of the tavern feel – a lot of worn woodwork, a fireplace and a full bar.

Just off this first room were two other dinning spaces with a completely different feel – more formal. The chairs and tables were a little more decorative (but still worn) and the walls were an off white with a light blue trim and crown molding. The room was decorated with curtains, a painting and other framed drawings.

One of the best parts were the server’s uniforms – they looked like they jumped right out of the late 1700’s with their high stockings, cropped pants, vests, shirts and aprons.

Talk about a time warp!

I spent most of my meal admiring my surroundings while grinning like a total nerd.

 

For dinner, I started with a French Onion Soup with bread and a glass of the tavern’s specialty – rum punch.

After all – how could I say no to a drink they’ve been serving since the late 1700’s?

I blame George Washington.

Following the soup, I went for the Gentleman’s Pye… described by the tavern as, “a colonial favorite – tender cuts of lamb and beef in a savory red wine stew topped with mashed red potatoes and a puff pastry crust”.

The entire experience was fantastic in both food and atmosphere.

 

Mount Vernon

The last stop on my trip brought me to Mount Vernon – Washington’s plantation home just south of Alexandria.

The estate, which sits on the banks of the Potomac River, originally belonged to George’s father, Augustine. Following Augustine’s death, the home was left to George’s half-brother Lawrence Washington. Lawrence renamed the property Mount Vernon and following his death – the property eventually made it’s way into George’s ownership.

Today, the property is operated as a museum by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – who rely entirely on private donations and admission sales to keep Mount Vernon running.

With admission you are free to explore the grounds, which include: the mansion, blacksmith shop, slave quarters, pioneer farm, gardens, wharf, slave memorial and burial ground, Washington’s tomb, museum and education center.

Of all the stops, my favorite was the guided tour through the mansion, which was decorated to look as it did in 1799 (the year of Washington’s death). It was amazing to be able to walk through a property that old, to see it so well preserved and to get a feel for how Washington lived.

The rooms in the house were beautiful – some were very ornate with high ceilings, green walls, marble fireplaces and large crown molding, while others fell more on the simple side for daily or private use.

Of all the items in the home, I really enjoyed one of Washington’s prized possessions.

Hung on the wall of the first floor landing or entry is a case made by Washington that displays a one pound, three ounce, wrought iron key. The key – which belonged to the Bastille – was sent to Washington by Marquis de Lafayette as a gift.

On December 14, 1799 George Washington passed away at the age of 67 in his home from a short illness that started with a sore throat. His funeral was held on December 18th where he was interred in a family crypt at Mount Vernon.

As the crypt began to fall into disrepair and an unsuccessful attempt was made to steal Washington’s skull – plans were made to move his remains.

While attempts were made by some to move Washington’s body to the Capitol, Southerns fought hard to keep him where they felt he belonged – in the south.

Eventually – on October 7, 1837 – both Washington and his wife Martha were moved to the new tomb on the grounds of Mount Vernon.

After spending the weekend in Alexandria walking in George Washington’s footsteps, I was surprised by many things.

It blew my mind that so many buildings from his time are still standing. Being able to walk down the same streets and see some of the same sights Washington would have was such a surreal experience.

Also, to learn that he prided himself as a farmer first and foremost and questioned his own capabilities as a leader in the Revolutionary War went against every heroic, patriotic image I grew up with. To know a man who is still so loved and admired had his own self-doubts helped me see past the legend and straight to the man himself.

I want to thank Holiday Inn for giving me the opportunity to get better acquainted with the first president and father of our country, George Washington.

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!!!

(Photo of Painting hanging in The George Washington Masonic National Memorial)

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Holiday Inn. The opinions and text are all mine.

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Easy Do It Yourself Minion Cupcakes

 

I love baking, so when my favorite little minion turned six, I was quick to pull out a fun cupcake idea I had tucked away months earlier. Where I found it, I have no idea… it was posted online somewhere – Facebook? Pintrest? Instagram?

Who knows – It was just too cute to not save and try.

Overall, they were pretty easy to make. The biggest drama I had was – of all things – finding Twinkies in Australia. My poor guy, after trying several places with no luck, I sent him out to one shop that sold them individually. $30 it cost him… for one box!!!

They are what? $4 to $5 dollars a box in the U.S.A.? Flippin’ crazy.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted Twinkies that badly…

 

 

Beyond the insanely expensive Twinkies, I bought a few other things:

  • Vanilla Cupcake Mix (Normally I make cakes from scratch but due to lack of time – box mix it was!)
  • White Frosting
  • Food Coloring (to turn white frosting yellow)
  • Blue Cupcake Liners
  • Smarties (or Rockets as they call them in Australia)
  • Large Smarties (or Rockets)
  • Blue Tubed Hardening Writing Icing (Used for overalls)
  • Black Tubed Hardening Writing Icing (Used for facial details)
  • Red Tubed Hardening Writing Icing (Used to color in tongues)

Following the directions on the boxed cupcake mix the night before, I placed the blue cupcake liners in the cupcake tray – filled them with batter and popped them in the oven. Once fully baked, I let them cool then placed them on a plate and covered them with plastic wrap for the night.

I did stray from the original photo I had gotten this idea from by going with only blue cupcake liners. Minions wear blue overalls… being a bit OCD when it comes to anything artsy… my damn minions weren’t about to have pink, poka dotted bottoms.

Besides – let’s be honest – nothing gets by kids! I’m sure, had I used anything but blue I would have been lectured on proper minion attire for half the party.  

 

 

The next morning, I mixed some yellow food coloring into my white frosting until I got a color I was happy with and covered the tops of the cupcakes. Once all covered, I let them set for a bit while I cut the Twinkies in half.

For every one Twinkie, you get two minion heads.

Returning to the cupcakes, I used the Twinkies to get the right spacing for the overall straps then used the blue writing icing to draw them on.

From there, I moved to the faces using a dot of yellow icing to stick the Smartie eyeballs in place then outlined them with the black writing icing (further securing them) – adding the goggle band, eyes, mouths and other facial details.

With the faces, I strayed from the original photo idea again…

The photo that originally gave me the idea, had the same face for every minion – where’s the fun in that?!

Instead of a bunch of two eyed, smiling minions – I made one and two eyed minions, some smiling, some sleeping, some sticking out their tongues, some yelling and others surprised. Using the red writing icing, I colored in the tongues that hung out and added blue Z’s to the one who was sleeping.

If you’re going to make them – have fun with it! Why make them all the same?

Just keep it PG if its a kids party.

 

 

Helpful Tip: Thanks to the suggestion of a lovely lady on Twitter, I did not assemble the minions until I got to the party. Using containers, I transported the cupcakes in one and the minion heads in another (keeping them cool in a cooler or “eskie” as the Aussies say). I didn’t have a problem with the eyeball smarties sliding off but depending on the frosting and writing icing you use, they could easily be a problem. Leaving the heads cool and laying flat will help avoid this.

 

Once we got to the park, I assembled the heads and cupcakes. To help secure the minion heads, I brought some extra yellow frosting in a small container and applied it to the bottoms – lightly pressing them in place on top of the cupcakes.

It only took a couple of seconds to assemble – totally worth avoiding runaway eyes!

 

 

In the end, the kids loved them and got a kick out of picking out which minion they wanted by its facial expression.

Being Australian little ones… they were all a bit confused by Twinkies. It was funny watching them take a few bites, trying to decide if they liked them or not. For those who weren’t a fan, they still had the vanilla cupcake to destroy.

Outside of zombies movie, does anyone actually like Twinkies???

After 36 years, this American has finally found a good use for them thanks to the good ol’ internet. Overall it was a relatively easy, fun and creative alternative to the standard birthday cake.

I would definitely recommend giving them a go if you have a little one who’s crazy for minions!

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America’s First Official Thanksgiving

Located on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, Va., is the Berkeley Plantation, a three-story brick mansion with a lot of history.

Built by Benjamin Harrison IV, it is the birthplace of descendants Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States; and the ancestral home of Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president.

But along with a list of prominent residents, the Berkley Plantation is also the purported site of the first official American Thanksgiving.

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Now, if you are anything like me, I was quick to dispute this. After all, especially being a New Englander, we were all taught the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. When the Mayflower arrived on the shores of Massachusetts, with its 102 passengers and about 30 crewmembers, it was welcomed by a harsh November climate. Due to exposure, disease and shortages of food, only 53 Pilgrims survived their first New England winter.

Were it not for the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag people, those 53 Pilgrims may not have had anything to be thankful for. Squanto is known for teaching the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow crops, as well as acting as interpreter between them and the Wampanoag. Along with Squanto’s help, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit supplied the Pilgrims with food the first winter when supplies from England fell short.

Due to the help they received, the surviving Pilgrims of the Mayflower in early autumn of 1621 enjoyed their first successful harvest. To celebrate the occasion, a three-day feast was held attended by Massasoit, about 90 of his people, Squanto and the Pilgrims. This three-day event of games, singing and dancing while two cultures sat down sharing a meal is what has been romanticized by history as our first Thanksgiving.

However, a historian working at the Berkeley Plantation was kind enough to explain that the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving was strictly a religious observance. In the past it revolved entirely around days of prayer.

Thanksgiving was not an occasion designed with the sole purpose of eating until your stomach explodes (followed up by hours of football) like it has become today.  The Berkeley Plantation also argues there is no evidence that the Pilgrims declared their festival as a Thanksgiving.

Due to overpopulation, unemployment, poverty and a failing woolen industry, people in England looked to the New World as an opportunity for a better life. Looking for religious freedom, fortune and a bit of adventure, many boarded ships to settle in Virginia Colony. While many settlers fought to survive the horrible living conditions in Jamestown, four men in England planned settlement of what would become known as the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia.

With an 8,000-acre land grant along the James River from the London Company, William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth looked to make their fortune in tobacco crops.  Together, they commissioned Captain John Woodlief to lead the expedition and the assignment of establishing a government for the Berkeley Hundred.

On Sept. 16, 1619, Throckmorton, Berkeley, Thorpe, Smyth and Woodlief boarded the Good Ship Margaret in Kingrode, Bristol, England. Margaret carried a total of 38 men, all handpicked by Woodlief for their strength and skill. Also on board were large supplies of food, tools, weapons, construction and agricultural tools – as well as goods to trade with the natives.

Barely surviving the two and a half-month journey across the stormy Atlantic, the 47-ton, 35-foot-long ship finally arrived at its destination on Dec. 4, 1619. Once all 38 men were rowed to shore with their personal belongings, they all knelt as Captain Woodlief led them in prayer.

 

Following the specific requests of the London Company, Woodlief declared, “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

And it is this well-documented event that the Berkeley Plantation believes is the first official American Thanksgiving.

It is hard to deny the documents; the fact is this event took place almost two years before the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration – and it fits the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving. Yet the Berkeley Plantation cannot deny our modern national holiday, declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, more closely resembles the celebration of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.

Regardless of where it was originally held, and our need as humans to always be the first, to me it has always been the spirit of the holiday that’s most important. It is about being tolerant and learning to appreciate each other’s differences, which is something our colonist ancestors did not excel at despite the stories we’ve been taught.

The holiday also serves as a reminder to be thankful for, and celebrate, the positive aspects in our lives – such as time with our family, friends and good health. In the end, these are important lessons that should be remembered throughout the year, beyond our one-day celebration of overdosing on turkey and pumpkin pie.

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Our Ancestors and The Spiritualist Movement

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Today it is almost impossible to find a channel without a show that revolves around the paranormal. Every time we turn around there’s a new series that shadows a paranormal group as they investigate unexplained sights and sounds under the green glow of an infrared camera. Armed with an assortment of gadgets, the investigators claim to use science and commonsense to prove or debunk believed paranormal activity.

Due to the popularity of these shows, new paranormal groups have popped up everywhere, while thousands flock to attend lectures, conventions, and ghost hunts looking for an experience of their own. It was just ten years ago having a ghost story would be enough to be labeled crazy, where today it seems as though everybody has one. Ghosts and hauntings are no longer stories saved for around a campfire.

However, this isn’t the first time the need or belief in communicating with the dead has been popular. In March 1848, the Spiritualist Movement was born in Hydesville, NY when two sisters claimed to make contact with a peddler who had supposedly been murdered in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox would ask for knocks from the spirit in response to their questions. When unexplained rappings came from the walls, witnesses were left completely baffled.

It didn’t take long for news of the Fox sister’s supernatural talents to spread throughout their town and eventually the country. Shortly after, they began touring as mediums holding public séances and lectures. As the popularity of these events grew, thousands of believers flocked to mediums to attend séances in hopes of contacting their lost loved ones.

The Spiritualist Movement saw two spikes in popularity: following the Civil War and again following World War I. Many believe it is due to the fact our ancestors were being exposed to the harsh reality of war through photography. Although photography was used to document some battles before the Civil War, they weren’t as extensively covered. War was no longer just some romanticized event rendered in an artist’s work. Our ancestors were being bombarded with gruesome pictures from the battlefields and left mourning the tragic loss of their loved ones in large numbers.

Mixed with our age-long curiosity in life after death, Spiritualism gave our ancestors some comfort. It was a movement that was founded on the beliefs that life existed after death, our spirits went on to a better place, and that they could communicate with the living. By going to a medium, there was a sense that their deceased loved ones weren’t really lost. These beliefs appealed to a wide variety of people, even Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln was known to seek the help of mediums following the death of their young son Willie.

Unfortunately, the fame and fortune mediums were receiving began to attract frauds who were looking to take advantage of those who were grieving. Desperate to believe, some were blind to the trickery pulled by those looking to make a quick buck. During this time, many people stepped forward looking to expose the frauds, including Harry Houdini.

Houdini became interested in the Spiritualist Movement following the death of his mother. After attending several séances in hopes of making contact with her, he discovered the mediums were playing basic parlor tricks on their trusting audience. Using his knowledge as a magician, he made it his mission to expose those who were making a living off of deception while hoping to meet a medium he could not debunk.

After years of being scrutinized by skeptics, with a majority of mediums being exposed as frauds, the Spiritualist Movement’s popularity began to dwindle. The final blow came when one of the founders, Margaret Fox, denounced Spiritualism as “an absolute falsehood from beginning to end” where she went on to publicly display how her and her sister played on the imaginations of their audiences. A year later, she tried to recant her confession; however, at that point the damage was already done.

Today, even with all of our technology, I can’t help but wonder if we are really any closer to discovering the truth putting all of our faith, some blindly, into equipment like our ancestors did in the past with mediums. Like Houdini, even though I have become more and more skeptical over the years, there is still something in me that wants to believe. Call it human nature or chalk it up to some of the experiences I have had that I still am trying to wrap my head around. After six years, I am still looking for that one piece of evidence that will no longer leave me questioning.

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The Ghost of Aaron Young

Over the last six years I have taken part in hundreds of paranormal investigations and, as many of you know by now, I have been obsessed with genealogy since I was in the fourth grade. That said, I am often surprised by how different genealogy and the paranormal are viewed considering the strong similarities between the two.

The first similarity, being the most obvious, is the fact that both genealogy and paranormal investigation revolve around researching the dead. When it comes to the actual historical research on a location, all the same steps are taken that would be used to trace an ancestor. Think about it: If the paranormal theories are correct, and locations are haunted by people who have passed, who were those people? Finally both genealogy and paranormal investigation have a common motivator; they are both used to fill our need of keeping the dead alive.

Despite these similarities, genealogy is commonly viewed as the past-time of grandparents, while paranormal investigation is extremely popular across all age groups.

Why is this? Especially when genealogy gives you the ability to hunt the ghosts of your own past, rather than any old ghost in any old location.

Keeping the above in mind, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite paranormal investigations that is a great example of just how much genealogy and the paranormal have in common.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of investigating a bed and breakfast in Virginia known as Edgewood Plantation. While there were several paranormal claims reported over the years from owners and visitors, there was one in particular I was assigned to research.

The claim was tied to a little cabin in the back of the property, where a woman checked in for a long weekend and claimed she was woken in the middle of the night by the ghost of a Civil War soldier. What’s more, the ghost supposedly introduced himself as Aaron Young III. The following morning, even though she had booked her stay for several nights, the woman checked out saying she was unable to sleep because this young confederate soldier would not stop talking.

Since the owner of the bed and breakfast had no knowledge of anyone named Aaron Young being connected to the property, it became my job to research the name. Utilizing the information I was given about the supposed ghostly experience, I decided the first thing to do is check Civil War military records for the name Aaron Young III. To my surprise, a total of nine Aaron Young’s surfaced; six were union soldiers and three were confederate. Since the woman claimed the ghost she saw was a confederate soldier, I immediately crossed the union soldiers off my list.

Turning my attention to the three confederate soldiers I found, two were from Virginia and one was from Tennessee. With a bit of digging I was able to determine that the man from Tennessee never fought in Virginia, so I saw no need to research him further.

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With only private Aaron B. Young of the 31st Virginia Infantry Company C and 2nd Lieutenant Aaron B. Young of the 20th Virginia Cavalry Company F remaining, I began to see some similarities between the two. The most obvious was the middle initial. However, after closer inspection of their military records, I also noticed they shared the same date of birth and place of birth, which brought me to the conclusion they were the same man.

Aaron B. Young had started out as a private in the 31st Infantry. Due to the severe number of casualties within that regiment, he was moved to the 20th Cavalry where he was eventually promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. The only thing that left me confused at this point were the several documents contradicting whether or not Aaron survived the war.

One record in particular stated he had died at war from a gunshot wound while serving in the 31st Regiment, which was clearly inaccurate since I had proof he went on to fight in the 20th Cavalry. There were also several other records that claimed he died due to illness, while others listed him as absent recovering from an illness.

All of this confusion left me with two questions: Did Aaron B. Young survive the Civil War? And was he the third male to carry the name in his family?

In order to find the answers to these questions, I turned to the internet.

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With the basic information I had on Aaron he was not a hard one to find due to his military records. Although Aaron Bell Young was not the third male to carry the name in his family, he did survive the Civil War. In fact, he went on to marry twice and had a total of 21 children.

At this point, it would be fair to say that I had become obsessed with researching Aaron’s life and the thought of him possibly haunting Edgewood Plantation. I was left wondering, “Could I place Aaron at Edgewood?” To try to answer this question I had to consider the history behind Edgewood Plantation and needed to re-examine Aaron’s military records.

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Going through Aaron’s military records again, depending on their accuracy, I was able to place him within 15 miles of the plantation by mapping out the distance between the battles his regiments took part in around Edgewood. That — mixed with the fact that Edgewood was used as a signal post by the Confederate Army to spy on the Union Army camped at nearby Berkley plantation with more than 100,000 troops — really made me question if Aaron B. Young would have come in contact with Edgewood.

Even if he had, though, what could have happened to him at Edgewood that would lead him to haunt the location especially since he had not died there? Still, whether or not Edgewood is haunted by the ghost of Aaron Young, his ghost is alive and well — in the genealogical sense — through the stories of his descendants.

The episode featuring Edgewood Plantation, with my research involving Aaron, aired months later. And this led to another interesting twist: I was emailed by one of his descendants.

As we had told the owner of Edgewood, I explained to his descendant that it was nearly impossible to prove beyond a doubt that Aaron haunted the location. However, for paranormal investigators, it was interesting to find that a confederate soldier by the name of Aaron Young did exist in the area.

As different as these two worlds may seem at first glance, it was my love of history and genealogy that pushed me into the paranormal. It gave me the opportunity to use my research skills in historical locations I never dreamed of having the opportunity to visit. From old abandoned hospitals, jails and places of historical importance in the United States, to European castles, World War II forts and Mayan Ruins, I was intrigued by the idea that the past may still be playing out in those locations.

It also made me question, if ghosts are people who have passed, who might my ancestors be haunting?

 

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(Aaron Young Picture With His Sons)

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A Haunting Reality

Over the years, I have learned many things about life and myself by researching my ancestors. Through interviewing my parents, grandparents and other descendants, making visits to town halls, libraries, vital statistic offices and cemeteries I have discovered several things about my family’s past. Every now and then though, this look back comes with a very unexpected and haunting look forward.

The story of my great grandfather, Robert Henry Williams has always been a mystery. My grandfather was only 13 when his father passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 39. Being as young as my grandfather was when he became the “man of the house”, he really didn’t know or remember a lot about his father.

Grandpa was able to tell me that Robert was born in Waterville, Maine. He said that he remembered taking trips to Vermont with his parents to visit his father’s family. I also learned that Robert was a WWI veteran who served in France as a wagoner. The only story passed down through the family about his service, had to do with trench warfare and Robert being “gassed”… Tear gas? Chlorine? Mustard, perhaps?

Following the war, Robert became the district manager for Waldorf Café, which had him traveling around New England. He married my great grandmother, Marjorie Washburn and together they had a total of seven children. The family seemed to be living a comfortable life in Lynn, Massachusetts when they were dealt an unexpected and devastating blow.

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On April 19, 1935, Robert was in the middle of a meeting inside a Waldorf Café freezer when he began to feel ill. His co-workers instructed him to lay down on the floor of the freezer while they called for a doctor. By the time the doctor arrived to have a look at Robert, he was feeling better.

Shortly after the doctor left, my great grandfather died of a massive heart attack.

Growing up I had heard many stories about the chaos that followed Robert’s death. His untimely passing changed my grandfather’s family forever. Outside of the obvious emotional and financial problems, he and his siblings watched on as their mother (who was pregnant with her seventh child) was forced to make tough decisions in – what she believed to be – the best interest of her family.

I have often wondered, as I am sure the family did, how different their lives would have been had Robert lived to an old age. It’s no surprise my grandfather and his siblings knew so little about their father, they were so young when they lost him. As they got older, their days were spent going to school and finding odd jobs to help their mother financially. Their focus wouldn’t have been on enjoying their childhood; it would have been focused on survival.

My grandfather’s story has always upset me.

I couldn’t imagine how hard life was for his family and I couldn’t imagine losing my father at the age of 13. It made me realize how fortunate I was; not only did I have an amazing grandfather, he and my grandmother gave me an amazing father.

Listening to my grandfather’s stories, I could tell he wished he knew more about his father. His need to know more motivated me to do some digging… I wanted to know more as well. What kind of man was he? What did he do in the war? What was his childhood like? What was his family like? All of these questions lead me to many places, one of which was Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Burlington, Massachusetts.

There I was… finally standing in front of his headstone for the first time…

My stomached turned, I began to tremble and my eyes welled up with tears… I thought I was going to be sick. Having been so set on learning more about my great grandfather, I wasn’t prepared for the haunting reality that was waiting for me at that headstone.

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“Robert Henry Williams”, it read…

The same name as my brother, my father and my grandfather, who were all alive and well… Three men in my life that meant the world to me… and there was their name, etched in the cold granite staring back at me. I cried uncontrollably while I tore away at the grass and dirt that had begun growing over the ground level stone with my hands.

While the purpose of the visit was to learn more about my great grandfather, I walked away with much more than that. As important as it is to learn about your family’s past, it is just as important to learn how to be present.

Too many of us take our loved ones for granted. We forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that they won’t always be there. We tell ourselves we’ll visit, call or email tomorrow, this weekend or next week. Life gets crazy, we get sidetracked with day-to-day bullshit and we make excuses.

What’s the old saying, “time waits for no man”?

As if my grandfather’s story of loss wasn’t enough, it took seeing the names of my loved ones carved in stone for that message to stick.

Robert Williams Sr

Today’s Advice? Get off your buttocks and reach out to your loved ones. It’s time spent you’ll never regret.

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American Servicemen In Australia

The Japanese military attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, thrust the United States into WWII. It wasn’t long after that Australia and New Zealand found themselves also under threat of Japanese attacks. While the majority of Australia’s soldiers fought alongside the British Royal Army against the Germans in the Middle East and Africa, the Japanese made their way through South Asia and South Pacific with little resistance. It was then that Australia and the United States joined forces to stop their military expansion.

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My grandfather was one of a million American servicemen who found himself in Australia during World War II. While Australians had popular Hollywood movies to familiarize them with American culture, Americans knew very little about Australia or its citizens. Our soldiers were in a foreign land trying to make sense of the currency, a new environment, unfamiliar foods and, of course, colorful Australian slang.

On a trip to Canberra, Australia’s capital city, I visited the Australian War Memorial. I was beyond impressed and moved by the Australian War Memorial’s collection and its presentation of the artifacts. The memorial was filled with detailed dioramas and paintings that depicted battles, along with pictures of soldiers paired with stories of their bravery. Some displays left me speechless, such as the restored planes paired with a large screen that played re-enactments of air battles which brought the aircraft’s history back to life. Another exhibit – a wall of thousands of names of soldiers who died in battle – was decorated with small red flowers called poppies. The wall left me with an overwhelming sadness that I could only compare to what I felt on my first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.

After spending the afternoon wandering through this shrine to Australia’s fallen heroes, my curiosity was piqued by a little blue book found in the gift shop. The book titled, Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia 1942 was reproduced from the original which was created by the Special Service Division, Services of Supply, United States Army, and issued by the War and Navy Departments Washington, D.C. Although our soldiers presence was mostly welcomed due to our countries’ common goal, that didn’t mean there wasn’t some tension. In order to try and avoid any unneeded drama, this small booklet was produced and issued to each American soldier arriving to Australia, familiarizing them with the Australian people, land, history and culture.

The book mainly focused on our similarities as relatively new countries with British roots. It described Australia as made up of proud, independent people who believed in the importance of personal freedom and democracy. A brief history was given of their involvement in past wars and their record as well-respected, brave soldiers who wouldn’t quit. All of the information covered in the book was used to build respect and a sense of common ground since they were qualities Americans also strived for and respected. More importantly, it stressed the fact we needed Australia’s help just as much as they needed ours.

While the book’s main purpose was to establish a sense of camaraderie between the newly arriving American servicemen and the Australians, at times it tried a little too hard to make that connection. I found some humor as it pushed our mutual love of sports and compared our carnivorous appetite. However, the part that really made me smile can be found at the back of the book, which covers Australian slang. After several of my own visits to Australia, it made me think back on all the words or phrases that ended in funny misunderstandings or left me scratching my head.

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Having a grandfather who spent a great deal of time in Australia during World War II, this book was a fun little find. Sometimes it seems as though our loved ones’ service in the South Pacific during World War II isn’t covered as extensively as our involvement in Europe. Not only is this booklet a piece of history, it allowed me a look into the lives of our servicemen; I can only imagine the mixed feeling of excitement for those who had never left the country before, while also knowing there was a chance they might not come home alive.

Here was a book that was most likely issued to my grandfather that found its way into my hands, 67 years after he served, in the country he fought alongside. There is not one day that goes by that I haven’t wished I asked my grandfather more about his service and his time in Australia. I know he really would have gotten a kick out of my trips to the country he always wished to return to for a visit. It is small unexpected surprises like this that help me put his story together and make me like to think he’s still with me.

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(Grandpa & I – Early 1980’s)

 

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The Parkes Observatory

July 20, 1969 six hundred million people worldwide sat glued to their televisions watching as Neil Armstrong emerged from Apollo 11. Making his way down the ladder, Armstrong’s feet finally made contact with the moon’s surface. What followed were his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Joined by Buzz Aldrin, the two men walked, hopped, and loped across the desolate landscape in ghostly black and white images.

In the short 2 ½ hours they spent on the moon’s surface, they worked fast to collect soil and rock samples, took photos, and raised the American flag. They also received a phone call from then president, Richard Nixon, who described it as “the most historic telephone call ever made”. The success of this historic event, which fulfilled the late John F. Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s played out on live television for all the world to see.

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Driving through New South Wales, seven miles north of a small town called Parkes, I noticed a dish towering over a cluster of trees just off in the distance. Miles of flat open land stretched out around it, covered in a grass that gave off a golden glow in the late afternoon sun. Something about it just seemed so out of place-it really was in the middle of nowhere. Parking in the visitors’ lot, I couldn’t get over how enormous the Parkes Observatory was, and the more I got to know about it, it just continued to become even more beautiful.

The Parkes Observatory telescope was completed in 1961 with a 210ft movable dish. It is the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere and is still considered one of the best in the world. Although it has been involved in tracking many space missions over the years, its biggest claim to fame came in 1969 when NASA reached out to Australia asking for help with the Apollo 11 mission. NASA needed stations that could track Apollo 11 while the moon was over Australia.

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A total of three stations were used to track Apollo 11 while also relaying communication to NASA for the live broadcast of the landing. Originally NASA chose the Goldstone station in California and Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra, Australia as the main receiving stations. The Parkes Observatory was only supposed to be a backup station incase the other stations were unable to pick up signals from Apollo 11. However, that all changed when NASA realized the moon would be directly over Parkes Observatory when Apollo 11 was scheduled to land. Parkes then went from a backup to a main receiving station for the mission.

When the cameras on the Lunar Module were triggered all three stations picked up the signal. It was then up to NASA to bounce between each station to see who had the best coverage of the landing. The first eight minutes of the broadcast were carried by Honeysuckle Creek until NASA saw the quality of the images coming from Parkes. For the rest of the 2 ½ hour live broadcast, NASA stayed with Parkes’ signal. This made Australia the first to see the images seconds before the rest of the world. Due to the success of the Parkes’ telescope, NASA went on to build three telescopes for their Deep Space Network matching Parkes’ design.

Walking around the grounds of Parkes Observatory, I couldn’t help but imagine the excitement that went through the small town. Not only were they a huge component in the broadcasting of the Apollo 11 landing, their design went on to directly influence NASA’s program. It was definitely a huge accomplishment not only locally but for Australia as a whole.

The Parkes Observatory is just one of the many beautiful stops I would have never known existed if it weren’t for a little detour in my travels due to curiosity. With the success of Apollo 11, the stars were no longer out of reach of human contact. This one mission opened the imaginations from the young to old from 1969 to today. In that short 2 ½ hour live broadcast, all of those watching worldwide became one-we had done it.

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The Importance of Knowing Your Family’s Medical History

I can still remember the look on my doctor’s face when she asked me for my family’s medical history. All she saw was this teenage girl sitting in front of her; I can tell you she did not expect the laundry list of information that came out of me. I rattled off all the information I knew starting with my great grandparents. When I was finally done and she realized I caught her looking at me strangely, she was quick to explain, “Most people don’t know more than their parent’s medical history…”

 

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At that point I had been into genealogy for several years and even as a kid it didn’t take me long to see a pattern in my family’s medical history. Sitting with my grandparents talking about ancestors I had never met, it was only natural to eventually ask how they passed. After awhile I even made a habit of asking my grandparents about illnesses they or their family members had suffered from. Eventually I started to get my hands on death certificates and I made note of the cause of death listed on each record.

From the research I had done, I learned there are several things that my family and I needed be aware of. For the men in my family heart attacks at a fairly young age are not uncommon. While one of my great grandmothers lost her battle with breast cancer, another beat cervical and ovarian cancer. Then there were a few things that affected both men and women in my family, namely other forms of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Although all of this may sound depressing, it is important information to know since there are several medical conditions that are believed to be hereditary. Some of these conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, allergies and depression.

It is also not uncommon, whether caused genetically or environmentally, that things like alcoholism, drug abuse and learning disabilities have also been found to run through families.

I encourage people to keep record of their family’s medical history, not only will it add to your research, it could save your life or the life of a loved one. Look into your ancestor’s death records, sit with your family, ask questions, record the information and share your findings. Knowing what has afflicted your family in the past will give you and future generations a chance at prevention.

 

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What to Expect When Flying Economy Internationally

For many, the idea of traveling overseas seems impossible – starting with the flight.

Whether they have never flown before or their experience is limited to traveling economy domestically – the idea of parking their booty in a cramped seat for hours on end seems nothing short of nightmare-ish.

Factor in the one narrow aisle, stale pretzels or lame bag of peanuts and entertainment you’re expected to pay extra for – it’s no surprise domestic travel is enough to turn most people off to international travel.

The truth is though – international flights are miles better than domestic.

Here are a few reasons why:

 

In-Flight Extras

On a domestic flight – you are lucky if you are given a free pair of headphones to accompany the movie you had to pay extra for.

International flights on the other hand… not only is it common to have a blanket, pillow and headphones waiting to greet you at your seat – there is usually a bag or cabinet full of extras to help make the long trip that much more bearable.

 

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Some of the extras that are typically offered are: a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste to spare you and fellow travelers from any threat of dragon breath, a sleep mask to help catch some Z’s even if your neighbor has got their interrogation (reading) light on full blast and occasionally socks – to help keep your feet clean and toes from turning to ice blocks.

 

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Extra Room to Roam

Being an aisle seat lover, I really hate the narrow aisles on domestic flights – you manage to get hit, bumped, brushed and smacked by everyone and everything thing passing through it during the flight. Not to mention, the seats are cramped and you are expected to stay seated and buckled unless you absolutely have to get up.

Having back and occasional leg problems… domestic flights can be painful.

International flights on the other hand… you can expect two aisles (wider than domestic) and plenty of open spaces to walk around or stretch your legs. Not only that – flight attendants encourage you to get up and move around as much as possible.

Even the seats seem to have a little extra leg room – on my last flight the distance between my knee and the back of the chair in front of me was about the length of my iphone 6S.

Not bad considering – at 5’8″ – I can barely cross my legs on most domestic flights.

 

Legroom

 

Entertainment

In addition to the swag and extra room, there is usually a ton of free entertainment on international flights – none of that nickel and diming like domestic.

Being someone who is unable to sleep on planes and travels regularly – free movies, TV shows, games and music is a real sanity saver. Curling up with my blanket, pillow and headphones – I actually look forward to watching movies back to back with no interruptions.

A new thing on some international flights has been wifi. Although I have had to pay a small fee to use it the handful of times it was offered  – it’s been totally worth it.

Call me weird but I get a complete kick out of bugging people on social media or text while sitting on a plane, miles above the ocean.

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Food

With domestic flights you are lucky to get a free packet of pretzels, peanuts, cookies or some other less than exciting option. If you are hoping for anything more than that – like a cold sandwich or a sad cheese and fruit plate you are usually expected to pay extra.

Not the case on international flights – prepare to gain 10 pounds at no extra cost.

When flying to Australia (14 hour flight), dinner is generally served two hours into the flight and breakfast is served two hours before landing. In between there are snacks. The food is free, the quality is decent and you are fed often.

Here are examples of dinner, snacks and breakfast from my last flight…

 

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Dinner: Given three options to choose from, I went with Penne Pasta with Creamy Tomato Sauce and Parmesan Cheese. All options came with Herb Bread, White Chocolate and Raspberry Cheesecake and a choice of soda, juices, coffee, tea, beer, cocktails or wine… I went with Merlot!

 

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Snacks: Options vary from flight to flight and between different airlines… Some airlines have given me a goodie bag containing a bottle of water, bag of chips, a chocolate bar and granola bar while others come around during the flight with ice cream, ice cream bars, chocolate, hot/cold sandwiches or cheese and cracker packs. My last flight included a Tomato and Capsicum (bell pepper) Pizza Topped with Feta and Basil, a Kit Kat Bar and Fresh Whole Fruit. Besides what the flight attendants deliver to your seat – all international flights I have been on, have had a snack cabinet of sorts which includes a water refill station… This last flight offered fig granola bars and Tim Tams (an Australian chocolate bar).

 

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Breakfast: On most international flights they offer at least two choices – a hot meal or the standard continental of cereal, yogurt, etc. If I do breakfast, I usually go with the hot. Last flight offered Scrambled Eggs with Bacon, Sausage, Mushrooms, Hash brown and Roasted Tomato. In addition, both hot/cold choices came with a Orange and Cranberry Muffin, Yogurt with Blueberries and the choice of coffee, tea, juice or soda.

Breakfast, snack and dinner. Doesn’t look all that bad – does it?

I have always found the meals to be enjoyable and as I have said to my friends and family – If you really wanted to, you could spend the entire flight eating.

Geeet In MY Bell-ah!

 

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All in All…

With all the extras of international travel I also find it’s helpful to keep these two things in mind…

Treat the flight as part of your adventure!

How often do you get to turn off and read a book? How about reading through that travel guide you bought before getting to your destination? As I said earlier – you could also enjoy the chance to watch movies back to back for hours on end without the need to be any where else! Or – if you are a procrastinator like I am – flights have always been a good place to wrap up work I have been meaning to finish without any interruptions.

Finally…

Remember how lucky we are and how far we have come.

My great grandfather spent two seasick weeks on a boat when moving from Italy to Boston with his family in the early 1900’s. Today you can fly that distance in about 8 hours while curled up with a blanket and pillow, eating like there’s no tomorrow, watching endless movies, playing games and in some cases – surfing the web!

With that said – no excuses. Get dreaming and get doing!

You won’t regret it.

 

 

 

***Do you fly international regularly? Is there anything else you might add to ease the minds of those dreading a long flight? Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on international flights!***