The Pursuit of Happiness
The straight-backed wooden bench felt smooth as I slid into my favorite time and place—the 18th century brought to Brigadoon-esque life in Colonial Williamsburg. It was early evening in late May, so daylight was still shining through the circular windows of the Capitol building’s House of Burgesses room, a reconstruction of the chamber where Patrick Henry gave his Caesar-Brutus speech and many of the debates on American independence took place.
After our costumed guide set the stage with a refresher on the Tea Act and the colonists’ tax complaints, my fellow participants in the “Revolutionary Points of View” program would re-enact one such debate. My own thespian talents would be tested as I played William Booker, a delegate from Prince Edward County, who encouraged his colleagues to “wait awhile more to see if King George will be fair to us”.
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Not one to trust in the fairness of government, I had once hoped to do more than play-act in the cause of liberty. I’d even written a book calling for fundamental reform of the U.S. income tax system that is so much more burdensome than the tea tax that had inflamed the colonists. But the book tanked; my publisher breached our contract; the tax code carries on unscathed; big government grows ever bigger, and I subsisted as a freelance writer in northern Virginia, about three hours from Williamsburg.
Then my father called and asked me to come home to Massachusetts. Despite having been effectively bed-ridden for two decades with multiple sclerosis, he still had his wits and his wit. My mother, on the other hand, had about two years earlier been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, the cruelest version of the cruelest disease. I should have gone home earlier; I’d been thinking about it for years, but I didn’t want to give up my life and my dreams. I said Yes. But first I had to pack up. And I wanted to have some fun. That’s why I was in Williamsburg; I didn’t know how long it would be before I could return.
After “Revolutionary Points of View”, I went on a walking tour called “Pirates Amongst Us”, during which ghosts of Blackbeard’s underlings and victims tell their bitter stories. The acting is mediocre, but the tour affords the opportunity to explore Williamsburg and a few of its buildings after dark. Colonial Williamsburg is beautiful in daylight, but at night, in the dim light provided by lanterns, the moon, and the reflection of the opalescent shells used for gravel, it’s harder to see all the other visitors’ 21st-century garb. And the other senses are heightened. The shells crackle under foot; the uneven bricks press through shoe soles. The aromas of tavern food and burning wood mingle with that ever-present CW scent of fresh horse manure. (“Don’t step in the authenticity,” the tour guides warn.)
In the gruesome Public Gaol, the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet claims that Blackbeard, once his friend, double-crossed and virtually imprisoned him aboard his flagship. Bonnet was ultimately captured by authorities and hanged in Charleston.
Far more pleasant than the gaol, especially in the 18th century, is the Apollo Room at the Raleigh Tavern, into which limped Israel Hands, once second-in-command to Blackbeard, on golden slats that give slightly underfoot.
Standing before its brownish brick, marble-mantled fireplace, Hands bitterly recounts the time Blackbeard shot him in the knee for no apparent reason. Hands and the fireplace are flanked by two doors of the same teal-green as the rectangular room’s wainscoting and window frames; they stand out against the cream-colored upper walls. Depending on how you look at it, Hands may or may not have fared better than Bonnet. After the shooting he deserted Blackbeard’s ship and was later captured by authorities, but was pardoned and avoided hanging, only to die as a beggar in London.
A few weeks later, under an irresistible intuition that I needed to be home by Father’s Day, I drove my packed car back to Massachusetts, sad but determined not to be as bitter as one of Williamburg’s pirate ghosts. I knew that it was good for my father that I was there, someone to talk to and to gradually take on the tasks of managing the household. And there were happy moments—watching the Red Sox, or singing songs at lunch.
It was a couple of hours after one of these light-hearted lunches that Dad became ill with an infection and had to go to the hospital. This was a fairly common event during the long course of his illness. Except this time, he never came home. Eleven days later, he passed away.
I was devastated, except that I didn’t have the luxury of being devastated. I had to take care of a mother who didn’t know me, all the while waging exhausting legal battles to be allowed to take care of her.
And then one day, about three months later, Mom went into the same hospital, with kidney failure. Two weeks later, she passed away.
So there I was, alone, haunted by memories in the house to which I returned after my disastrous attempt at a writing career, to care for parents who both died within a year.
But there is an upside to losing every hope you’ve ever harbored to do some good: You get to stop trying so hard. So I did. I stopped trying, and started travelling. Having failed utterly at furthering life and liberty, I’m now all about the pursuit of happiness—through fun, food, drink, art, and especially travel, my favorite thing to do. This blog is about that pursuit.
About two years after my father died, I went back to Williamsburg and once again took the “Pirates Amongst Us” tour. Even listening once again to Israel Hands recount his bitter story, it was sweet to be back in the Apollo Room. And afterwards, I slipped into the Williamsburg darkness and walked back to the tavern room I’d reserved for the night and settled into the beautiful bed, safe and snug under its canopy, enjoying the present moment and excited about the future journey.
I hope you’ll join me.