Odd memories, part 10: Shattered childhood

The year is 1970, or maybe ’71. I am in kindergarten, embarking on a field trip in New Jersey to one of the many Revolutionary War sites in the area. Like all other boys in class, I have my colonial tricorn hat made of three pieces of blue construction paper stapled together. The bus ride isn’t long, and I remember turning off at the hospital (where I had not long before had my head stitched up, but that’s another post that may explain a lot) and traveling not far down that road. It ended at the edge of the Delaware River, across from Philadelphia, and a small park there. We were visiting the former site of Fort Mercer, and the current site of the Whitall House.

The house, maintained since that time and long doing duty as a museum, had served as a hospital during the war. I vividly remember our kindergarten teacher pointing repeatedly to the bloodstains preserved under the floor varnish, getting quite frustrated with us because we had no grasp of the color blood turns over time and she hadn’t bothered to explain it to us (she really shouldn’t have been a teacher, certainly not of young children – this also may explain a lot about me.) All we saw were variations of the floor stain that bespoke the same bad shellacking job visible in the school gym…

It was the exterior of the house, however, that fostered the most indelible memory. On one blank wall of the house, embedded in the concrete, were several cannonballs, small to my cartoon-fed mind and leaving rust stains down the old surface. They had been fired by ships on the river, we were told, and had been left there ever since. Aside from the impression that they seemed too small to be of much use, perhaps fifteen centimeters (six inches) across, there was the undeniable fact that they couldn’t effectively penetrate someone’s house.

Many years later, I started wondering about my recollections – was there really a Revolutionary War site that convenient to where I grew up? Was the river as close as I recalled? None of this was too strange – my hometown featured an ancient (and of course haunted) house formerly belonging to a war surgeon, that my sister and I timidly explored, if by “explore” you mean my venturing a short ways into the front door in broad daylight, and my sister actually getting partway up the stairs until spooked by a falling wedding photo. And only a few blocks away, workers doing renovations on another old house discovered a hidden narrow stairwell running from the attic down to a basement tunnel, later discovered to be part of the Underground Railway that transported escaped slaves. Listen, folks: names that accurately describe the situation will undoubtedly help kids understand history much better. It wasn’t a goddamn train and it didn’t go underground (except, at times, like it did in this situation.) It was a network of sympathetic people who found creative ways of getting slaves to free states. But anyway, it wasn’t too farfetched to have a war site in the area, though I wondered just how accurate my memory really was.

Doing some poking around on Google Earth, I discovered it was surprisingly accurate. Despite no one else that I spoke with seeming to know the least little bit about it, the Whitall House sits right where I remembered, and it can be reached with only one turn off of the road past the hospital. Yet searching through the various images I could find online failed to turn up those cannonballs, surely a major attention-getter. I was starting to doubt my memory again when I came across a short passage, in an article relating a bit of folklore that I did not recall in the slightest:

But the story is a popular one, and in the 1930s, when, as part of a Works Progress Administration project, the building’s brick north wall was covered with stucco, about a dozen ornamental cannonballs were nailed through the stucco to commemorate the battering that the wall supposedly took during the battle.

Today [the story was published almost exactly 25 years ago], a $200,000 renovation of the building’s exterior, which includes the removal of both the stucco and the ornamental cannonballs, is nearing completion.

They… were… FAKES! No wonder every image I could find of the brick north face of the house failed to match my memory of a concrete wall! No wonder all of the webpages that detailed the house and its history failed to mention the most striking feature! (Yes, another pun, I’m going to hell, we know that already.) Worse, they belied the real story (perhaps) of the cannonball that hurtled through the wall and came to rest at the feet of Ann Whitall. This at least gave a little more credit to the guns of the time not being so damn wussy…

The funny part of all this is, I really had no intention of doing something ‘appropriate’ for Independence Day, since I get tired of seeing the efforts of everybody and their brother who feels obligated to honor every holiday that comes along. Seriously. I was spending the evening chasing down various items in Google Earth and revisited this (along with the taco place in Georgia that had a superhero out front urging new patrons inside.) When I found the blatant misrepresentation foisted on my malleable little mind I just wanted to share, and didn’t realize the coincidence until I caught the publication date of the linked article. No, I don’t expect you to believe that, but there it is anyway.