On March 16, 2003, Glenn Beck (of 1210 AM WPHT Philadelphia) led a crowd of 10,000+ in what he dubbed a “Rally for America”. It wasn’t a pro-war rally. It wasn’t an anti-war rally. It was a rally for our troops. It was a rally for our young men and women in uniform, who need to know that when they come home they will be applauded – not demoralized.
My day began at about 9 AM. I called in sick to work (Tower Records), never for a better reason, and then gathered the necessary tools for such an occasion: 1 large bag of Tostitos, 1 32 oz. bottle of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, 1 map of Downtown Philly (lot of good that would do me in Valley Forge), 1 digital camera, 1 35mm camera, 2 rolls of black & white film (48 exp.), 1 Panasonic multi-speed micro cassette recorder, and 8 micro cassettes capable of recording 8 hours of sound.
I started up the Ford Focus at 11:17 AM on the first really “warm” Philadelphia day of the year, 60°+ and climbing! For months, the highs have been below 50°, but today was like summer compared to all that. People were out walking their dogs and jogging, the bums were pandering in full force like I’d remembered from the summer. I noticed a group of kids all dressed in green – St. Patrick’s Day revelers celebrating a day early. Driving down Broad St., I passed the University of the Arts. Angela is in there right now working on a mid-term project. I passed Tower Records, and I couldn’t help but think about all the beautiful days that I’d missed, cooped up behind a cash register – not today.
Béla Fleck’s Acoustic Planet is spinning in my car CD player. There may not be a better album for traveling. A fire truck crosses the intersection just in front of city hall and everything comes to a standstill, then all three lanes merge around city hall and North to I-76. As I pull onto the interstate, I remember that Glenn Beck’s rally in Atlanta pulled in 25,000 people. Could this rally pull in those numbers? If so, did I leave early enough? A hot-air balloon, the first official hot-air balloon I’d ever seen, floated down from the sky and landed in the trees lining the interstate. Just then, a dark blue Lincoln passed me. Attached to it were at least a dozen of those little American flags, you know the kind – little wooden stick for a post. I must be headed in the right direction.
On I-76 I pass exits for St. John’s, Germantown, Wissahickon Park, Manayunk, Roxborough, and Conshohocken. This unusually-scenic strip of the Eisenhower interstate system cuts through the hills surrounding Philadelphia. It follows the Schuykill River north to Conshohocken, and then suddenly darts west at what is know as the “Conshohocken Curve”. From here, one can look down upon the businesses of Conshohocken or look up at the two week old ice that refuses to melt on the hill’s cliffs. Just then a large tour bus passes me, the entire rear is covered in a red, white, and blue sign that reads, “REBORN IN THE USA!”. I’m certainly headed in the right direction.
I pass exits for Plymouth Meeting, West Chester, and my exit, King of Prussia. I exit at Mall Blvd. (the King of Prussia mall is a pretty big deal around here). Now, I could tell you all about how I got lost in King of Prussia. I could go into detail about the ski/bike shop and the three gas stations that I stopped at, but that would be a waste of time. Let’s just say I crossed the town twice, and finally after about 20 minutes of searching found what I was looking for – traffic at a complete standstill. Gridlock in both lanes of Gulph Rd. – a King of Prussia “snow route” (We people from Louisiana don’t ever put those two words together.) I was starting to feel stupid for not jazzing up the Focus with star-spangled patriotism. It seemed that every car for a mile was draped in red, white , and blue!
Here’s the situation. At the last minute, it was decided to congregate at a convention center in West King of Prussia. From there, shuttles would take us to the rally in Valley Forge National Historic Park. The problem: there were at least 5,000 people in line to take the shuttle and only ten shuttles. I walked from my car toward the gathering crowds. I saw an unending snake of people. I walked through this mayhem for at least 10 minutes, looking for the end. I couldn’t find the end or the beginning. I thought to myself, “This line isn’t moving. I’ll never get there.”
I spoke to a few people. Despite the obvious schematic problems, everyone was in high spirits. No one complained about the situation. As a matter of fact, several amazing things happened at this point. People with children, especially multiple children, were allowed to the beginning of the line. Some people, realizing that they would never get to the rally started their own rallies. They sang patriotic songs and cheered, “USA! USA!”. One man, Kenny from Green Lane, PA, decided that he wasn’t going to just sit there and watch his rally slip farther and farther away. The man, at least 6’5″, boomed over the thousands, urging them to walk to Valley Forge, “You’re not gunna make it if ya wait for the shuttle! There’s too many people in front of you.. they only have ten shuttles!” Some one asked how far the journey would be. He responded, “Five miles! Five miles! You’re gunna stand anyway, might as well get some exercise!” In minutes, a line of at least 500 people was formed.[audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny01ss.mp3|titles=Kenny starts the march] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny04ss.mp3|titles=Meet Kenny]
I left the convention center parking lot with those people. Actually, at first I was right in front with Kenny and his wife. Later I would drop back and talk to as many people as possible. We crossed the highway, followed it up a hill and under a bypass, then left into Valley Forge. None of us knew the way. Yet, the mood in the front of the line was one of confidence. We entered the golden, rolling hills of Valley Forge, with it’s wild wheat and abundance of deer droppings. We passed replica cannons and replica huts like the ones Washington’s Army would have lived in. I suspect that if this rally had occurred a week earlier, the conditions would have been impossible – but never as impossible as Washington’s horrible winter in 1777 and 1778. We were lucky because today was perfect.[audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny05ss.mp3|titles=Meet Walt from Havertown, PA]
We marched through the valley, and it was just that – a valley. The down hills were cake, but the up hills were definitely not. At the top of every hill, we hoped to see anything that looked like a rally. We came to the bottom of one valley only to realize that the idea “shortest distance between two points is a straight path” would not apply here. Standing in our way was a strip of impassable woods (fenced off by signs that warned of high levels of asbestos) coupled with an impassable creek. We had to go around. That put us atop the largest hill yet.
It was here that I started talking to people with loved ones overseas. I spoke to the parents of David Headly, a soldier in the US Army stationed in Kuwait. I learned about Brian Klinger, a Marine in Kuwait. A friend gives us a little insight as to what a soldier might like in his care package. I spoke to the hopeful family of US Army soldier Steve Griner, who is stationed at Ft. Camble, KY. He has two little ones at home and a wife that was expecting. I spoke to Korean War veteran John Brown, who “took mines and booby traps out”. He has a message for his fellow Marines. I met Vietnam veteran Bob Dervin, a scout with the 82nd Airborne – also the proud father of a son in the 82nd. I only wish that I had started asking people to talk to me sooner. No one held back, as if they were dying for someone to inquire.[audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny07ss.mp3|titles=Me calling out to folks] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny06ss.mp3|titles=Parents of David Headly] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny08ss.mp3|titles=Parents of Brian Klinger] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny09ss.mp3|titles=Parents of Steve Griner] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny11ss.mp3|titles=Korean War Veteran John Brown] [audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/kenny13ss.mp3|titles=Vietnam War Veteran Bob Dervin]
We came down from the hills and marched through the Village of Valley Forge. A historical sign reads, “Village settled by the workers at iron forge begun in 1742. The forge and part of the village were burned by the British army in 1777. Washington’s quarters during the winter of 1777-78 were in the Isaac Potts’ house, a part of the original village.” The road was now a valley, and on either side were Colonial style homes lined by large stone walls. We passed a lot filled with bikers who had come in droves to attend the rally. We passed a church. The sign reads, “YOURE HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION WHEN YOU WALK WITH GOD”. Remember now, this march through Valley Forge and the village was not planned. The sign wasn’t intentionally set up for our benefit, but when all those very faithful marchers passed that church sign – I witnessed the largest collective second wind that I’ve ever seen. Right after that church was the biggest uphill climb yet, and I swear – people sped up. This marked the final leg of the trip. Just after that uphill inevitably came a downhill that brought us to the gates of the rally area – a sea of red, white, and blue.
The rally itself had just really kicked off. It was just passed 2 PM, which meant that we’d marched almost 2 hours! Set in a clearing in Valley Forge Park, the spot for the rally would have been as inspiring silent as it was with thousands of roaring Americans. Just behind me was a very large statue of George Washington, kneeling in prayer. Children and adults gathered around it. Glenn Beck took the stage. The image only shows one hundred or so in front of me, but that’s because I spent about 15 minutes waking through the crowd. Beck’s message was clear and simple – support our troops. He spoke for about an hour and the rally ended in song – America the Beautiful.
There were two ways to get back to the convention center – shuttle or foot. It was the same situation all over again, but many decided to wait for the shuttle this time. I walked back simply because I knew it would be faster, only I decided to take the longer scenic way, passing the Washington Episcopal Memorial Chapel and many huts and cannons. Those who chose to walk back were sparse, scattered randomly through the valley. There was no one to talk to or follow and no clear direction to walk in. It left a person with time to think. This was one of the greatest days of my life. Listen to this radio caller, Maurice from Washington Crossing, PA – he sums it up very well.[audio:http://taylorlasseigne.com/slicesofamerica/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/bigtalk01.mp3|titles=Maurice from Washington Crossing]