As father of two growing boys, I occasionally feel the need to give them a sense of what makes this country great.

My everyday solution is to turn on the History Channel. But I suppose this “hands-on” parenting leaves something to be desired.

So when I announced several months that we would embark on a two-week, 3,500-mile car trip to our country’s cradle of democracy, my wife gasped audibly. With a wary “OK”, she gave her blessing, warning only that when the “togetherness” factor degenerated from “Father Knows Best” to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, her hands would be clean.

And so we jammed the car with our possessions (along with my mother-in-law and most of hers), and off we roared. Among the stops: The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestown in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Gettysburg, and Amish country. And, for good measure, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis.

Overall, we learned lots of historical lessons, and the only obscenities came not from my family, but from a drunken baseball fan in Baltimore’s Camden Yards.

And the lessons learned…

• The colonial mansions we visited were beautifully restored and usually had family cemeteries near the house. But who knew, as one son pointed out, that George Washington was lucky enough to have a Pizza Hut in the Ye Olde Food Court just down the trail from his house?

• A vexing question from the kids: Why did Thomas Jefferson have a “necessary” room (“outhouse” in modern lingo) with three holes in it? One for men, one for women, but who (or what) used the other hole? Even the tour guide was stumped on that one.

• The biggest political celebrity we met on the trip was Barney, the Bush’s dog. He ambled by our tour line at the White House, presumably on the way to his own necessary room, and we could only marvel at our brush with one of Washington’s political heavyweights.

• Our Amish tour guide in Pennsylvania confided during our carriage ride that, even as the Amish are different from you and me in many ways, one thing remains the same: “In-laws are in-laws, whether they’re Amish or not.”

• As we drove by Bucksnort, Tenn., a local radio station broadcast the need for judges to oversee its “Miss Summer Hottie 2004” contest. I suggested to my wife that a visiting Texas journalist might be considered a celebrity judge; she suggested that I snap out of it.

Finally, as the trip neared an end, I asked our younger son if he’d be interested in living in a home like George Washington’s 330-year-old Mount Vernon.

“No,” he said. “Everything is too old in this house, and the backyard is filled with dead people.”

Freedom of expression — hey, isn’t that what makes our country great?


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