Connecting with the past

When we hit the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston into Mount Pleasant the boys stopped watching Harry Potter on our minivan’s built-in DVD player.

From the span over the Cooper River we could see the U.S.S. Yorktown, parked at Patriots Point. It would be our home for a night, and it was lit impressively, beckoning us to come and explore.

“Wow! Is that it, Daddy?” and “I’ve never been on a ship like that before!” came from the back.

That’s when I knew it would be a good weekend.

Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown
Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Charleston Harbor.

The boys and I joined 101 other Cub Scouts and parents from Pack 564 for an overnight visit to the retired aircraft carrier parked in the Charleston Harbor since 1975. The six hour drive was interrupted only by a stop in Sandersville to unload Carla and Carlton, who were spending the weekend with her parents.

What struck me most about the half hour stopover was Poppy’s excitement about the boys’ trip. He had served on the U.S.S. Little Rock in the 1960s, and began telling us about his experiences at sea. I referenced the conversation numerous times while on board the Yorktown, trying to help the boys connect with their grandfather in a new way.

For kids, the sheer size of the ship is a novelty. But throw in 38- and 50-caliber gun mounts to climb on, airplanes to get a closer look at and seemingly miles of passageways to explore, and you’ve got life-long memories.

Harris at the helm
Harris at the helm of the Yorktown.

What stood out to the boys? If you ask them, they will tell you about the galley with a recipe for 10,000 chocolate cookies printed on the wall. Or they’ll describe the brig, the massive engine room and the gigantic hangar containing old aircraft.

Their expressions of wide-eyed wonder as they took the helm and climbed into the captain’s chair spoke volumes about their experience, and the questions came faster than an F-18 catapulted from the deck of a carrier.

I could see the realities of life at sea with 2,600 other sailors begin to sink in with the boys as they stowed their gear in their “berths.” The stacks of bunks, three and four high connected by chains drew immediate calls for “top bunk.”

Barron even affirmed my career choice. After watching me duck through hatches all day, he said, “You wouldn’t be a very good sailor, Daddy. You would always be hitting your head.”

Barron in the captain's chair
Barron tries out the Captain's Chair.

When we got back to Sandersville to pick up Carla and Carlton, I caught a glimpse of a twinkle in Poppy’s eyes as the boys breathlessly fired facts and descriptions at him. They covered the highlights, pausing every now and then to let Poppy insert a story from his service to help provide context for what they saw.

It’s like the time I saw “Saving Private Ryan.” In the intensity of that film, I was able to barely grasp what it must have been like for my grandfather to serve in Normandy. Now my sons were seeing their grandfather in a whole new way as they experienced history.

We’re still processing the questions. The boys spent their President’s Day holiday drawing pictures of the Yorktown and setting up dioramas with their souvenirs, all the while asking more and more questions.

Perhaps even in the New South, there’s an appreciation for the experiences of our elders. I look forward to the conversations my boys will have with all their grandparents as their understanding of history grows and their bonds with them are strengthened.

How have you connected with your grandparents? Did a trip to a historical place or an afternoon of stories on the front porch or time at the dinner table give you a glimpse into their lives? Take a moment to share your experiences by leaving a comment.