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USO, Clara Barton, and Canals

March 23, 2013

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097Maryland – Thursday, March 14

I stayed in Jessup last night which happened to be sort of close to Fort Meade and the USO that was going to be my donation-of-day. So I set off for the base, and got turned around a bit, and finally found an entrance gate. But it wasn’t an entrance gate for visitors, so the guard gave me directions to the other main gate, but he left out a major road so that slowed me down temporarily again. I found the right gate, and the signs all said vehicles would be searched, but the guard just took my license and registration for a minute, then waved me through. It was another big base – basically a small city – but I found the USO with no trouble, and went in to make the donation. Two of the volunteers were busy sorting stuff behind the main reception counter, and I was a bit confused to see what looked like a bunch of costume jewelry! That was not what I would expect to see people sorting on an army base! They explained they were getting ready for a special event for the military wives/women on base – a Cinderella-for-a-Day bit of pampering. The USO had just moved into its new location in January, and the volunteers were very happy about that – not only was it bigger space, but it was right across from a lot of the barracks, which made it more convenient for many soldiers. And there were soldiers coming and going and enjoying the amenities. I enjoyed seeing some of the base while I was driving in and out.

Then I headed for the Clara Barton National Historic Site – with 2 daughters who are nurses I thought it would be interesting to find out more about a Civil War nurse. But Clara Barton turned out to be the most famous nurse who was not really a nurse! She was never formally trained, but did practice nursing on the battlefields. And the reason she was allowed on battlefields in the first place has to do with her being a teacher in her younger years… Clara was a teacher in her young adult life, but then she decided she wanted to broaden her horizons so she moved away from Massachusetts and went to college (school teachers didn’t need a college education back then) and met a good friend from New Jersey. She eventually found herself in Washington DC, where she noticed there wasn’t much of a school system, so she spoke with town officials and offered to start a small school for free, and it grew quickly. The next year officials decided to hire a principal for pay – but it wasn’t Clara Barton because she was a woman. During this time, America was becoming embroiled in the Civil War, and Clara Barton began to see soldiers arriving in Washington from the New England states, and when she saw the Massachusetts soldiers, she realized a lot if them were her former students. They in turn told their families that their old teacher was in Washington DC, so they could send supplies to her. So Clara began receiving loads of supplies for the Union troops, and her friend from college also organized shipments of supplies from New Jersey where she came from, and Clara was unwittingly thrust into managing supplies for Civil War battles, which is how she was given permission to be on the battlefields and did some nursing. After all of this, she had some health issues and her doctor advised her to take a break and tour abroad, where she became familiar with the Swiss Red Cross agencies. And that’s how she got the idea to start the Red Cross organization in the US and become the first president. She eventually finished a large home/office/storage area/Red Cross office in a large building near Glen Echo MD, just outside of Washington DC. And that’s where I saw everything. To save money while finishing the “house”, she simply used bolts of bandage fabric to cover the ceilings instead of expensive plaster. They were painted white, and they’re still there – one would never know there’s bandage fabric on the ceilings! The house had 10 guest rooms for Red Cross volunteers and 50 closets for storing supplies – there was no such thing as pre-made canned soup, so food supplies were things like home-canned beans, peas and carrots, and baskets to carry it all in since plastic and paper bags didn’t exist yet. There was also a safe in the house with $3000 in it, so if a disaster happened on a Sunday, they could put the wheels of assistance in motion without waiting for banks to be open. Lots of her her original things we’re on display – a fascinating visit. She just sort of went with the flow and did a good job with whatever she ended up doing – I think she’s my new hero!

As I had been driving from Fort Meade to the Clara Barton place, I saw a national park sign for the Greenbelt Park, and I’d never heard of that one. I pulled off at the exit, and found a big park in the woods with some nice trails and Tula and I walked our first miles of the day there. The amazing thing about the Greenbelt Park is its proximity to Washington DC – it’s so woodsy and quiet, it’s hard to believe the metropolis of Washington DC is only about 12 miles away. They call it an urban oasis, and it truly is.

After my visit to Clara Barton’s house (and I was the only person on the tour!) the ranger directed me to the C and D Canal Historic Park, where the towpaths are now used as walking trails. It was only about a 15 minute drive away – C and D stands for Chesapeake and Delaware canals. The canal had to be dug along the Potomac River because the river falls about 60 feet as it approaches Washington DC, and the whitewater made it impossible to navigate. Maryland has a big canal system, and canals were very labor intensive to build. The canal also connected the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay. They only served their purpose for 20-25 years before the trains started hauling everything, although they still continued to be used for a while. Mules would pull the barges and stuff upstream and the tow paths are still there and make awesome walking paths. (And I couldn’t help but think of the elementary school song about the Erie Canal and the mule named Sal!) Tula and I walked over 4 miles along the canal, and even though it was cold out, it was one of the most peaceful, beautiful walks I’ve taken in Maryland. There were lots of ducks and herons, and it was so pretty following the canal along the Potomac. There was a boardwalk leading to the Great Falls and a little island, but dogs weren’t allowed, so I put Tula back in the car after our canal walk, and went back to the falls. There were a couple pedestrian bridges over the river, and the Potomac was a churning, turbulent mass of whitewater – nothing could have negotiated its way downstream or up – which was why the canals were built. The power in all that thundering water is something to see and hear, and I could sometimes feel the spray. I got an extra mile of walking in today, and I don’t think a day could be any more full and wonderful!
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