With the U.S. Capitol in our rear view mirror, rain pounded the windshield all the way to our nation’s first capital – Philadelphia.
We waited in a long snaking line under umbrellas outside of Independence Hall (originally it was known simply as the Pennsylvania statehouse). This was the heart of America. It was where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of The United States were signed by the nation’s Founding Fathers. It was only a day ago that we saw both of these original documents, guarded and under glass, in Washington D.C.
Our “magical history tour” up the East Coast connected place-to-place in ways that made the past very present.
The rain made the colors all around Independence Hall pop vividly, including the cobblestone road, green grass and brick building topped with a white steeple that housed a clock and bell tower. This is where the Liberty Bell was hung and rung to call to session the Founding Fathers to hammer out The Constitution.
Inside, we stood in the very room where formidable debate by one of the greatest assembly of men in history created a model of freedom that would ring for centuries and spread across the globe. I listened intently, along with my wife, to the stories told about those crucial times.
Then I glanced at my kids and saw them yawn big and in slow motion. I fought like hell to ward off the infectious power overtaking me. I pressed my lips closed, squinted my eyes and felt my neck and nostrils expand but I refused to open my mouth to let in any air. I probably looked like a blowfish.
Did I just make you yAWn?
The line for the Liberty Bell – in a building next door – was down a long outdoor sidewalk and wrapped back the same distance on the inside of the building. At least the rain had stopped.
The Bell was perhaps most famously rung on July 8, 1776 for citizens to gather and hear Colonel John Nixon publicly read the Declaration of Independence. But the Bell was ordered 25 years earlier to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Constitution. It did not reach its historic status or gain its historic name until abolitionists used it as a symbol for their cause, renaming what was merely known as the statehouse bell to the, now iconic, Liberty Bell.
The first signs of the Bell’s famous crack are debatable. It was on George Washington’s birthday in 1846, he had died in 1799, that it was finally deemed unable to ring any longer.
The Bell is fascinating to look at up close. It may no longer ring in our ears but it rings in our hearts. But it was the condition of the massive dark brown wood beam that holds it that caught my attention. It was like I was staring at the deeply wrinkled face of an old and weathered soldier who had gripping stories to tell.
For all of the history that happened in Philadelphia and all of the great men who came here to forge a beacon of freedom that would capture the attention of the world, it is really one man’s town – Benjamin Franklin.
Ben Franklin’s fingerprints are everywhere. He may have merely fancied himself a printer but he was a renown inventor, scientist, postmaster, politician, author, Founding Father, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, Grandmaster Freemason …and playboy. He invented the lightning rod, Franklin stove, bifocals, Glass Armonica musical instrument and even new swimming strokes. He helped create the first library and the University of Pennsylvania. He charted the Gulf Stream. And his list of titles and achievements goes on and on.
So, it was with this in mind that we wandered down a cobblestone road and saw a peculiar high rise brick building with a tunnel carved through its lower level.
We walked through and came to an open courtyard on the other side with several Ben Franklin options to explore. We entered a tall brick building that served as a time capsule. Tourist-like scaffolding went many floors high. It allowed us to scale the opposite brick wall (all protected by the same roof). The best way to describe it is that of a perpendicular achaelogical site. Lodged in the wall was the history of one of Ben Franklin’s stomping grounds. Markers pointed out where there was a flue for a fireplace and what went where in the rooms around. Displays featured other findings from the preserved façade of the brick building as we climbed to examine it further.
Another brick building seemed modern because it is so well maintained. But it’s where Ben Franklin, George Washington and others worshipped. A cobblestone road alongside Christ Church ran parallel to a tall wrought iron fence. Above it were the grand glass windows of the church, framed by brick. To the eye, there may have been more glass than brick facing us. Gorgeous!
Inside were crisp and clean wooden pews – painted white but with dark brown stained trim along top – that were waist high and walled on three sides leaving open the entry from the aisle. The most elaborate one was marked with a brass plaque saying “Washington Pew.” It was up front, large and with padded bench seating on multiple sides. Further back was a normal, narrow pew with one bench facing front. It was marked with a modern plaque as “Franklin Pew.”
We finally checked into our hotel before eating at a famous Philly steakhouse. A plaque on its exterior wall cited it was the original site of the founding of the University of Pennsylvania. The whole town is chock-full-of-history and all that the kids wanted to do was hit the rooftop pool! I’ll admit, it was very inviting but it would have to be reserved for our nightcap.
After freshening up, we walked around the corner and to the Christ Church Burial Ground where Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers are laid to rest. Two marble topped slabs were immediately on the opposite side of a tall wrought iron fence. Beneath one lies Benjamin Franklin, the other his wife, Deborah. Mounted there in the brick wall between sections of fence were these words:
The Body of
B. Franklin. Printer.
Like the Cover of an old Book.
Its Contents torn out.
And Stript of Its Lettering & Gilding.
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost.
For it will as he believ’d
appear once more
In a new and more perfect Edition
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
The cemetery also laid to rest other signers of The Declaration of Independence. The burial site had many slab-like stone burials, normal looking headstones and creepy waist-high casket-like stone tombs resting above ground. Many stones are so eroded that the writing on them is no longer legible. In many cases, plaques have been bolted to their surface with words that can be read once again.
I started to notice a pattern of imagery at the top of many headstones. Although, it wouldn’t enter my active imagination until we’d visit historic cemeteries in Boston. Together, the old graves made me very curious about the fascinating designs etched in them. Some of the more common images showed an hour glass, skull and crossbones or angel with wings spread. Others had a genie-like lantern or bending tree. Rare were old-time compasses or pyramids with an eye.
So here we were embarking on a new mystery when we still hadn’t solved that of the weird graffiti of robot-alien-petroglyph-looking stick figures from some of Washington D.C.’s crosswalks. But we were about to.
Before we solve this mystery, let’s eat!
A good traveler will always seek out the food a town is best known for. In Philly, that meant a Philly Cheesesteak. And by the looks of it, Jim’s Steaks must be the place to get a good one. A line stretched out of the building, down the side walk, around the corner and down another sidewalk. Before long we were in front of the shiny black and white lower portion of the building. There was a brick upper. We could see the magic happening through the windows. People came out expressing pure satisfaction. Our mouths watered with anticipation.
Inside, the line wound back and forth wrapping like that of a line at an amusement park. I studied how people were ordering and just as I stepped to the counter to rattle off what we wanted and how we wanted it…
I hated being next. I was next for darn near an eternity. It felt like I was holding up the line. I heard grumbles from deeper within like, “What’s the problem up there?” Maybe I was imagining it – Ya, let’s go with that. The shift change took a very long time. A completely new crew had to set up their own operation.
Finally, things moved again and we got what was ours and moved upstairs. There were big round tables near windows that opened to the streetscape intersection providing a wonderful urban view of surrounding buildings. This was our perch. And we were ready to dig in.
I laughed after my first bite because my kids have bland taste. These hefty steak sandwiches had meat falling out of the side and had red peppers piled on and were stuffed with honking wide onion curls. I was shocked that my kids said it was one of the best sandwiches they had ever had. I grunted agreement with another mouth full, my wife nodded her head too while she chewed. And nobody else said a word until our plates were clean.
Now, let’s wrap up that graffiti mystery.
As we navigated the streets of Philadelphia, I saw a sticker of our weird “stick man” slapped aside a metal newspaper box.
“Imagine that!” I pointed for the rest of the family to see.
Then, there he was next to another crosswalk just like in D.C. We snapped photos of the robot-alien-petroglyph in a hurry before we could get run over.
Gazing at the phone photos while we waited in the long line wrapping around Jim’s, my wife explored the Internet in the palm of her hand to solve the mystery.
Soon thereafter, she yelled, “Stikman!”
And so it was.
A street artist was littering this thing dubbed “Stikman” everywhere he went; Washington D.C, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities. But he and his creation were largely a mystery.
In this trip of incredulous sights, Stikman stuck with us.