Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Ever since my Mom died, Inna and I have been traveling for Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the four day holiday.  Last year, we explored the historic town of Fredericksburg, checking out the surrounding Civil War battlefields and their quaint little downtown shopping district and eateries.

This year, we decided to head west to the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, figuring that by avoiding the chaos on the I-95 corridor we wouldn't have to deal with a lot of holiday traffic.

The Laurel Highlands is home to a wide assortment of spectacular nature and history and we were planning on covering a lot of ground, including a bike ride from Ohiopyle to Confluence on the Great Allegheny Passage that runs from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural and artistic masterpiece Falling Water, and a hike along the scenic Youghiogheny River on the Laurel Highlands Trail.

Interstate commerce does not stop for Thanksgiving, and I-70 and I-68 were busy with truck traffic barreling west, along with a multitude of minivan families heading to grandma’s house for their holiday family feast.

Our first destination was the Fort Necessity National Battlefield Park, a National Park Service-managed historic site nestled in a lush mountain valley surrounded by hardwood forests in the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

The park was open for business, but the staff had been given the day off, so we literally had the whole place to ourselves.  The parking lot was empty and the only sounds came from the nearby National Road (Route 40) and chattering songbirds.

Luckily, I had downloaded a map of the park, along with some informative brochures that explained the historical significance of Fort Necessity.  So, we were pretty much good to go and headed off toward the fort which sits in the middle of Great Meadow.

The story of Fort Necessity is one of America’s most intriguing bits of forgotten history, which is kind of strange because it is the place where the French and Indian War between the two super powers of the time, England and France, began.  And if the place where a world war started isn't cool enough, the English commander of the fort was none other than a twenty-two-year-old, newly-commissioned Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia militia named George Washington.


In the spring of 1754, twenty-one years before the first shots were fired in the American Revolutionary War, a young surveyor who would one day become the father of our country, was ordered by the Governor of Virginia – West Virginia did not exist at this time – to cut a road through the wilderness to Redstone Creek, present day Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela.

Washington arrived at Great Meadow in May and immediately got into a skirmish with a small company of French soldiers.

According the National Park Service brochure: “A shot was fired, no one really knows by whom, and soon the peaceful glen was filled with the crash of musketry and the sulphurous smell of powder. The skirmish lasted about 15 minutes. When it was over, 13 Frenchmen were dead and 21 captured, including the officer in charge Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. One escaped and made his way back to Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio. Washington's casualties were one man killed and two or three wounded.”

Then all hell broke loose.  The French sent a large force from Fort Dusquesne, at present day Pittsburgh, to kill Washington and his men.  Washington got wind of the impending attack from a local Indian chief and he quickly decided to dig in and make a stand in the meadow.  Amazingly, even though he had plenty of time to plan his defense, he chose a spot in the very bottom of a wet bowl, surrounded by hills and woods, where an attacking force would have great cover and could fire down on the fort like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Park Service brochure describes what happened next.


            “He undertook to fortify his position at the Great Meadows. During the last two days of May and the first three days of June, he built a circular palisaded fort, which he called Fort Necessity.
            “The rest of the Virginia regiment arrived at the Great Meadows on June 9, along with supplies and nine small cannon called swivel guns. Washington's command now totaled 293 officers and men. He was reinforced several days later by about 100 men of Capt. James Mackay's Independent Company of regular British troops from South Carolina. Washington's attempts to retain his Indian allies were not successful.
            “While the South Carolinians remained at the Great Meadows, Washington and his Virginians spent most of June opening a road from Fort Necessity to Gist's Plantation, a frontier settlement in the direction of the forks of the Ohio. Reports that a large force of French and Indians was advancing from Fort Duquesne, however, caused him to withdraw his men to the Great Meadows, where they arrived July 1.
            “The next day, they strengthened Fort Necessity by improving the trenches outside the stockade. On the morning of July 3, a force of about 600 French and 100 Indians approached the fort. After the French took up positions in the woods, Washington withdrew his men to the entrenchments. Rain fell throughout the day, flooding the marshy ground. Both sides suffered casualties, but the British losses were greater than French and Indian losses.
            “The fighting continued sporadically until about 8 p.m. Then Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers, commander of the French force and brother of the recently-slain Jumonville, requested a truce to discuss the surrender of Washington's command.
            “Near midnight, after several hours of negotiation, Washington and Mackay signed the multi-part document. The British were allowed to withdraw with the honors of war, retaining their baggage and weapons, but having to surrender their swivel guns. Washington surrendered his command to the French.”

Washington and his wounded men marched out of Fort Necessity on July 4th, 1754 (July 4th!) and since that day, some historians have wondered what exactly took place that rainy night when Washington surrendered to the French.  From that day forward, George Washington’s relationship with the French was rather curious.

Washington violated the terms of his surrender by serving the following year as General Braddock’s aide-de-camp during the ill-fated English expedition to take Fort Duquesne.  And this is where things get very sketchy.  Two weeks before Braddock and his men were slaughtered, Washington came down with dysentery and was not seen around the English camp for extended periods of time.  A few days before the battle, an English officer (never identified) showed up at Fort Duquesne.  And during the beginning of the battle, Washington was uncharacteristically at the rear, riding a horse with two large red pillows attached to the front and back of his saddle – ostensibly because he was still feeling the aches and pains from his lingering illness.  Or was is really a visual cue – “don’t shoot the guy on the horse with the red pillows.”

If that was indeed the case, it didn’t work according to plan, because Washington fought like a demon during the Battle of Monongahela.  He had two horses shot out from underneath him and four musket balls ripped through his uniform.  And when Braddock and most of his officers had fallen in battle, it was Washington who assumed command and rallied the remaining soldiers, leading them from the battlefield in an orderly retreat.

According to the famous biographer James T. Flexner, as the soldiers talked among themselves later that night in camp one was heard to say, “I expected every moment to see him (Washington) fall. Nothing but the superintending care of Providence could have saved him.” 

Was the father of our country really a French spy?  Was he turned against the English on that fateful night at Fort Necessity?  For me, the most curious thing about the Fort Necessity debacle is the fact that the surrender document that Washington signed stated that Washington personally assassinated Jumonville.  So, why didn’t Captain Louis de Villiers avenge his brother’s death, as he had loudly promised he would do, when he had the culprit right there in his hands?

The facts are inconclusive. But history is clear that Washington ultimately forged a lasting alliance with the French during the American Revolutionary War and could not have won without the guidance and valor of two French generals who fought by his side throughout that long struggle, Rochambeau and Lafayette.

We left the fort as the sun was setting behind the Allegheny Mountains and traveled Washington’s route down the hilly National Road, through rural Fayette County (named after General Lafayette).

We were staying at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Uniontown and after checking into our room, we headed out to find some Thanksgiving dinner.

In Annapolis, most of the finer dining establishments serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but I wasn’t going to assume that a small town in Pennsylvania shared the same sensibilities.  So, before we left on our trip, I scouted out two Asian steakhouses that had received excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, figuring that Asian restaurants usually stay open on American holidays – even Christmas.

Well, it turned out that even the Asian restaurants were closed on Thanksgiving in Uniontown, and as a thick blanket of fog descended upon the rundown industrial town, things were looking pretty bleak on the eating front.  

I suddenly remembered seeing a nice restaurant that was crowded with cars not far from Fort Necessity, about forty-five minutes away, over a very steep and winding mountain road.  At that point, it seemed like our only sensible option.  Uniontown looked like a ghost town.

By the time we got to the Stone House restaurant, the place was closed.  They had apparently stopped serving at six.  It was almost eight and we were out of options.

We continued aimlessly up the National Road with little hope and hungry bellies and then suddenly came to a small building adorned with way too many Christmas lights and a big sign that included the word grille (with an e).  It looked like a dive bar.

It turned out to be a package liquor store.

We entered tentatively and were greeted by a friendly guy sitting at a table watching the Cowboys/Panthers football game like he was at home in his living room.  Another bearded fellow in camo sat at a small table by the window and nodded in greeting.

“Do you serve food?” I asked.

A tattooed waitress named Tiffany, sporting spiky black hair and a Steelers black and gold t-shirt, chuckled as she wiped the counter top with a dirty wet rag. “Well sort of.  We have microwave burritos and burgers.”

We frowned as we silently considered our options, which were pretty much zero.

Tiffany pointed toward the area behind the counter and said, “But I made a real nice Thanksgiving dinner and we would be happy to share it with you.  I knew that some of the local guys would have nowhere to go for the holiday, so I thought I’d make them a nice dinner.  You can join us if you like.”

 And so we did.


We sat there at little folding tables, surrounded by freezers filled with beer, waiting for whatever Thanksgiving treat this kind lady had prepared.  I grabbed two frosty Sierra Nevada beers from a nearby cooler and sat down.

I suddenly flashed back to the story about the Pilgrims who were befriended by some local Indians on that very first American Thanksgiving so long ago, and smiled.

A few more locals straggled in, all big men dressed for hunting.  They grabbed some Iron City beers from a cooler like it was their personal fridge and sat down to watch the game on the flat screen that was mounted on the wall.  This was apparently the neighborhood living room. The conversation drifted from trucks, to ten point bucks that got away, sports (Steelers and Penguins), and Fox news politics.

I asked them about the palatial resort we had accidentally stumbled onto earlier in the day called the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

The official greeter by the front door said, “Been here for about fifty years.  Lots of famous people have stayed there, even Presidents, like George Bush.  But not the guy that’s in there now.  He wouldn’t come anywhere near this place for anything.”

I should have kept my mouth shut but that’s not my style.  “Do you know where President Obama is right now?” I asked.

The man shook his head.

“He and his wife and daughters are serving Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C.”

The man scowled and several others snorted like I had confirmed their worst suspicions.

Our Thanksgiving dinner arrived on plastic plates and we were given small plastic utensils.  It was the real deal, complete with turkey, mashed sweet potatoes and gravy, corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a roll.  It was absolutely yummy.


I think I can safely say that we are not likely to ever eat a more surreal Thanksgiving dinner than surrounded by rednecks and beer in the middle of god-give-me-strength Pennsylvania.

More solitary men came in and sat down for their home cooked Thanksgiving dinner and the warmth and generosity of these rugged folk pierced my heart.  Inna and I ate our meal and drank our beers, occasionally looking at one another and just shaking our heads. 

When we went to pay our bill, Tiffany told us we owed $8.27.

“That can’t be right,” I said.  “That covers the four beers, but not the dinner.”

Tiffany smiled.  “Well, I made the dinner for everyone, so there’s no charge.  I just hope you liked it."

“It was delicious,” I replied.  “But we want to pay you for helping us out when we were in need.  If it hadn’t been for your kindness we would not have eaten – I mean, you're the only place around here that’s open.”

“You don’t need to pay.  But if you want, just give me what you think is fair.”

What was fair?  How could I put a price tag on the surprise blessings we had received from our friendly guardian angel?

 “Well, it’s the 26th of November," I said,  "So let’s make it $26."

Tiffany’s mouth fell open in disbelief.  That was a lot of money for a young woman working on Thanksgiving night at a liquor store grille in the middle of nowhere.  She almost started to cry.  And we did too.

As we walked outside into the cold mountain air, the Christmas lights twinkling all around us, Inna said, “You know, it’s strange how people who are so intolerant and right wing – so simple really – can hate Obama with such passion, and yet when it is just you and them, one on one, be so incredibly welcoming and generous.  It’s enough to make you wonder about people, isn’t it?”

And it is.  People are funny critters.  Especially hard-working rural people.  They see a world changing much faster than they can comprehend and it scares them.  So they often react with anger and their view of the world is pretty narrow-minded.  But at the same time, they would do almost anything to help a total stranger in need because, lest we forget, that is what we were all put here to do.

There is a lesson in this little story for all of us to remember.  The labels we attach to groups of Americans, like conservative or liberal, ignore our individuality.  They reduce us all to stereotypes – often ugly ones.

I am thankful that I was given the chance to learn that special lesson again.

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