Guns and other loud noises.

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Guns.

As part of my research, I wanted to experience what the weapons of the Civil War looked like, how they felt when you carried them, how they worked and, most importantly, how they sounded.

I knew that back in Ireland there would be no way to do any of this but here in America … well, not only was it possible to see these weapons, I could also get a chance to fire them.

Thanks to the very helpful members of the North-South Skirmishing Association (N-SSA), I found that no weapon from the Civil War was off-limits and this included cannon.

I joined the ‘Lancaster Fencibles’ at an N-SSA skirmish, which was held just outside Lancaster in a little place called Drumore.

The firing line at Drumore

The firing line at Drumore.

Here, on a lovely farm complete with corn and tobacco fields, N-SSA teams from across the region, both north and south, gathered with their Springfield and Enfield rifled muskets, Spencer and Henry repeating rifles, cavalry carbines and an assortment of revolvers and even old flintlock musket pistols.

At first, I worried that the members of the N-SSA would perhaps not appreciate a spectator at their event, but I could not have been welcomed with more friendly and enthusiastic greetings if I had been attending a family gathering back home.

I was introduced to the most knowledgeable Civil War experts I have encountered on this trip. And these experts had guns!

100 guns

100 guns.

I was shown how each weapon was loaded, carried, cared for and fired. I got to feel the weight of the guns, of the ammunition and, most importantly, I heard and felt the sound that echoed across the fields as over 100 rifles fired at once.

I stood at the end of the firing line and saw the rifles leveled at their paper targets and then the line exploding with a volley that made me stagger back.

While this was all very impressive, as one of the ‘Lancaster Fencibles’ rightly pointed out, this was just 100 rifles, one tenth the strength of a regiment. I can only imagine the sight, sound and damage that 1,000 rifles firing as one would inflict on an enemy less that 200 yards (180 metres) away.

Another interesting fact was the amount of smoke this line of rifles produced – visibility on a Civil War battlefield must have been very restricted.

But now came my chance and I didn’t have to be asked twice if I wanted to fire a rifled musket.

I stepped up to the firing line, my instructor, a Mr. Tom Wiegand, handed me his precious rifle and talked me through the loading procedure.

There are nine steps. Nine steps before you get to fire one shot and then have to repeat the procedure again. Nine steps while you wait as the opposition levels their rifles at you, while you stand there shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of your comrades.

You can’t skip a step, your gun won’t fire if you do. A well-trained infantry soldier of the Civil War could get off three shots in a minute.

So, here are the nine steps and, remember, you can’t lie down on the ground and do this; because of the length of the rifle and the fact that you are loading through the barrel of the gun, you have to stand upright.

  1. Take a cartridge from the leather pouch hanging by your side (the cartridge is a paper tube with a Minie ball (bullet) at one end and a black powder (gunpowder) charge at the other.
  2. Bite the Minie ball out of the cartridge and hold the bullet in your mouth.
  3. Pour the black powder down into the barrel of the rifle.
  4. Take the Minie ball from your mouth and place it into the barrel of the rifle.
  5. Remove the ramrod from the rifle and ram the Minie ball down into the barrel making sure it reaches the end.
  6. Replace the ramrod.
  7. Cock the hammer.
  8. Remove a copper cap from your leather pouch and place it on the nipple beneath the cocked hammer. (This copper cap is the firing pin, it has fulminated mercury which causes a spark and ignites the powder and fires the Minie ball out of the barrel).
  9. Level the rifle, aim and fire.
    Then do it all again and again and again, if, that is, you haven’t been shot before you even manage to fire one shot.

Would you stand facing between 600 and 1,000 rifles less than 200 yards from you and then, with the shots and shells landing and killing those around you, go through the nine step so that you could fire one shot back?

My rifle now loaded and ready to fire, I leveled the weapon and took aim at the paper target.

The rifle felt heavy and I was having a real problem keeping the sights on the target. The barrel seemed to be swinging around the target in a figure of eight as I tried to keep the sights on the black centre of the target.

‘Whenever you’re ready,’ my instructor said standing safely behind me.

By now, my left arm was getting tired and the swing of the barrel was getting worse.

I pulled the trigger, felt the rifle butt kick into my right shoulder and I found myself enveloped in smoke.

As the smoke cleared, I eagerly scanned the target. It was pristine. As I stood there blinking, my instructor said: ‘You are aiming at the target right in front of you, right?’

I confirmed that I was indeed aiming at the correct target as I handed the rifle back. ‘Oh no, you must keep going until you get a hit, try again,’ Mr. Wiegand said.

And so I did. I tried again and again … and again. Ten shots later, with a left arm that was numb from the shoulder down and a right shoulder as tender as an Irishman on his first vacation to a Mediterranean beach resort, I managed to land four shots on the target. Well, on the paper anyway.

The best I could do...

The best I could do…

At least I can now say that I have handled and fired a Civil War weapon.

My weapon handling experience didn’t end in that lovely farm in Drumore. Here in America, as we know from our nightly news reports back home, guns are, well, part of the American culture, shall we say.

At home, we have guns: shotguns for rabbit, pheasant, duck, pigeon, etc., .22 caliber rifles for fox, rat, rabbit and so on, and .243 caliber rifles for deer.

Legally owned handguns are unheard of in Ireland, as are military-style rifles. The paperwork required to own a weapon and hold a firearms license is extensive and subject to yearly reviews and the amount of ammunitions you can hold is monitored and restricted.

With this in my mind, I was left amazed at what I saw at a visit to one of biggest ‘sporting’ and outdoor retailers – Cabela’s in Hamburg, PA.

Apart from baseball, fishing is my favourite hobby … well, fishing and eating. Anyway, the fishing department at Cabela’s is a sight to see; it’s a modern marvel. Before you get to the acres of rods, reels, line and everything else you could possibly need for a day’s fishing, you have to pass through the store’s aquarium.

Now, this aquarium is not stocked with colourful, exotic fish that you might encounter on a diving vacation to the Great Barrier Reef or some other tropical paradise. In Cabela’s aquarium, you will find all the fish you can catch in the area: pike, trout, bass, catfish and the like. So, when you emerge from the aquarium directly into the vast tackle display, you are in the right frame of mind to do some serious shopping.

Next, stocked up and ready for a fishing adventure, you need to pass the mountain (yes, mountain) to get to the cashiers.

The Mountain.

The mountain.

In the middle of the store is a mountain. On this mountain is a collection of every animal you can hunt on the North American continent: moose, deer, elk, bison, mountain goat and bighorn sheep, bear, mountain lion, polar bears, wolf and even the deadly squirrel.

All these animals are not displayed for you to stand in awe at their majestic bearings. No, each animal is either presented as you would like them to be just before you pulled the trigger or they are busy advancing on each other, all teeth and claws. This is not a cuddly display of the wonders of nature; indeed, you leave the mountain convinced, given half the chance, that ‘pesky squirrel’ would eat you and your entire family.

If only I had a gun...

If only I had a gun…

I need a bigger gun...

I need a bigger gun…

This Moose is just asking for it...

This moose is just asking for it…

Endangered? They will be when I get my gun...

Endangered? They will be when I get my gun…

This is what happens when you let Mother Nature to her own devices...

This is what happens when you let Mother Nature to her own devices…

With this in mind, you enter the gun department.

Again, I have to return to my experience of a ‘Gun Store’ back in Ireland. Our outdoor/fishing tackle/hunting stores are always small and packed with stock. It’s normally maybe two aisles of fishing rods with all the other tackle, hooks, lures and so on encased behind the counter in glass displays.

The firearms are always at the back of the store and always locked away. If you want to see a certain firearm, you have to ask the store assistant, prove that you are 18 or older and wait while he or she unlocks the cabinet. Even then, the store assistant will not allow you to cock the weapon or even dry fire it.

Here in Cabela’s it was like a shopping trip to the local grocery store: racks and racks of shotguns, rifles, both single shot and semi-automatic, and then the military style assault rifles. All out in the open, all within reach, I picked up weapons that I had only dreamed about, AR15s, semi-auto shotguns, Remington scoped rifles and a Russian vintage military high-powered rifle for less than $200.

They all had trigger locks attached, but still I could pick them up and examine them to my heart’s content.

It was amazing.

I have to admit that it is probably a good thing that I live in Ireland because I found myself slipping into these surroundings way too easily.

I was fascinated by the idea of being able to take one of these weapons from the rack, put it into my shopping cart, pick up some ammo on the way out and head home for some shooting fun.

A handy mug for your morning cup of joe..

A handy mug for your morning cuppa Joe…

A lovely chair to help you relax after a long day of huntin' and fishin'...

A lovely chair to help you relax after a long day of huntin’ and fishin’…

Of course, you have to have a firearms licence and Cabela’s can arrange this for you as well, all in store and all computerized.

As I stood watching the queue of people waiting to run their background checks on the computers, I realized just how much of a big business guns are in America.

I will admit that I really enjoyed my visit to Cabela’s, much to the surprise of my companion who suggested that we should call it a day before I lost the run of myself.

Only in America…

 

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A touch of home across the Atlantic

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Homesick.

I swore that I would never go to an Irish or Irish-themed pub when I was in America.

But this morning, for some reason, I as I walked up King Street in Lancaster, PA, I saw the national flag waving in the warm breeze outside Annie Bailey’s Pub. And, you know what? I suddenly felt homesick and found myself drawn towards the door of the pub.

An Irish pub in Lancaster, I found I had to go in.

An Irish pub in Lancaster – I found I had to go in.

And before you think all I wanted was a drink, then think again. Well, yes, I did feel like having a ‘sharpener’, but that wasn’t the main reason I stepped into the somewhat familiar surroundings of Annie Bailey’s.

What I expected was a faux Irish-themed pub complete with leprechauns, shamrocks and Aran sweaters.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a complete lack of any traditional Irish music and no mention of ‘shillelaghs’ (an Irish club or walking stick). In fact, there wasn’t a shamrock to be seen.

Even the 'Big Fella' is here

Even the ‘Big Fella’ is here.

It’s amazing but it felt just like a pub back home: dark wood, vintage Guinness signs, copper jugs, earthenware jugs and the proud display of the Irish football and rugby jerseys. All that was missing was the comforting smell of a peat fire. That, and the aroma that only a real Irish pub has … damp clothes and stale Guinness.

Feels like home...sort of!

Feels like home … sort of!

They even had real pints!

They even had real pints!

Yet as I sat there, at the bar, with a REAL pint of beer, it could have been a Sunday afternoon at home.

I don't know how the people of Clonmel would feel about this one...

I don’t know how the people of Clonmel feel about this one…

 

However, I will soon be home and reports from the peninsula suggest that I had better prepare for temperatures in the mid to high 50s F and plenty of ‘soft’ weather. In other words, it’s going to be cold and wet.

Perfect writing weather.

Husk.

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I arrived at the appointed time.

There was an aroma of freshly baked bread as I stood at the reception desk. I stood there like a man waiting for news of a momentous event in his life. Right now, the world outside didn’t exist; I was focused on getting a table, I just needed to get past the gatekeeper.

HUSK and the balcony where I hoped to enjoy good southern cuisine.

Husk and the balcony where I hoped to enjoy good southern cuisine.

‘Ok Sir, you’re on the wait list for our balcony. If you would like to take a seat at the bar, we will let you know when or ‘IF’ we can seat you,’ the lady with the big book said.

Sitting at the bar, I began to think I was in danger of making this experience a bit too much to live up to. I had built this meal up in my head based on what other people had told me. There was a big chance that I was about to fall flat on my face or perhaps stomach.

Anyway, I thought, I could be here at the bar for a while, or forever according to the receptionist, so I’d better hunker down and have a drink.

I perused the cocktail menu.

There was a CBWS’s Punch, which is a blend of bourbon, Barbados rum, citrus juices, honey and raw sugar simple syrup. Or perhaps I’d go for something called a ‘Yard too Far’, which is a mix of vanilla and ginger macerated bourbon, pecan orgeat and pecan bitters.

Bourbon seems to be a staple ingredient for most of the cocktails at Husk so I thought ‘when in Charleston…’ and ordered a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch, which has no bourbon in it, is a recipe from the Charleston Preservation Society, and is a bit of a signature drink around here.

The Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch is a blend of California brandy, Jamaican rum, peach brandy, black tea, lemon juice and raw sugar.

As I waited for my cocktail, I noticed there was a bar menu that included chicken wings and burgers so if I couldn’t get a table at least I wouldn’t starve.

I settled in.

I took a sip of my Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch. It was good, very good. Then the barman said, ‘Mr. Moore? Your table is ready now’.

I had been at the bar for exactly ten minutes. As I turned in my chair, my Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch still in my hand, there was the gatekeeper carrying a menu and ushering me towards the stairs leading to the balcony on the second floor.

On the balcony, my table was indeed ready for me, as were the other seven empty tables – all ready, all empty. ‘I thought they were fully booked,’ I said to myself as I took my seat.

All on my own.

All on my own.

Was this all hype? Had I made a mistake choosing Husk?
I was about to find out.

I studied the menu.

Heirloom Tomatoes with Texas Olive Oil, Fishing Creek Goat’s Milk Feta and Herbed Bread Crumbs.

Or

Wood Fired Clams with Roasted Fennel and Sweet Corn, Virginia Sausage, Tomato Braised Peppers and Onions, Garlic Toast

I looked up from the menu to see that two couples and a group of four had joined me on the balcony.

Manchester Farm’s Quail, Roasted Peach ‘Farrotto’, Charred Eggplant and Chanterelles, Peach Relish, Honey Thyme Jus.

Or

American Red Snapper, Summer Squash and Zucchini with Fire-roasted Fennel, ‘Confit’ Cherry Tomatoes, Shrimp Bisque.

I looked up from the menu again and the balcony was full of hungry people all reading their menus as if they were studying for some final exam. Perhaps I hadn’t made a mistake after all.

After much deliberation and a cross-examination of the very helpful waiter (I think it could have skirted the line between a couple of friendly questions and an interrogation actually), I decided on:

Local Oysters with a Raspberry and Mint Vinaigrette followed by Atlantic Grouper, Fire-roasted Mepkin Abbey Mushrooms and Shishito Peppers with English Peas, Mushroom-Soy Broth.

Raspberry Oysters.

Raspberry Oysters.

As I finished my Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch, I got myself ready for what I hoped would be THE meal of the American Adventure.

The oysters arrived.

In a large wooden bowl filled with ice, half a dozen oysters in the half-shell were swimming in a raspberry and mint vinaigrette.

It all looked very pretty but I like my oyster au naturel, tasting of the sea not raspberries.

I tried a raspberry oyster.

Salty, sweet, savoury…delicious!

It was a revelation. I have never tasted anything so strange and so good all at once. The beautiful oyster wasn’t overwhelmed by the raspberry and the mint, in fact, each element worked perfectly together.

This was a very good start, a very good start indeed.

Next came the grouper.

The Atlantic Grouper.

The Atlantic Grouper.

White meaty fish, perfectly cooked with flavours of the east and west fused together to produce a meal that will be remembered with relish on those cold, wet winter evenings back on the Sheep’s Head peninsula.

It was perfect. Well, almost perfect … there was a very important element missing. Oh, this ‘something missing’ had nothing to do with the food or the room. It’s all a bit more personal.

Anyway, the experience at Husk was indeed spectacular: delicious food, cool drinks and a very attentive and efficient staff.

However, I have a very simple code when it comes to pronouncing my views on what divides a good restaurant from a great restaurant.

Forget about Michelin Stars, there is only one way to decide and it’s rather basic.

There are very few restaurants where I have eaten that I would call ‘great’. I’m lucky, I live within walking distance of my favourite ‘great’ restaurant – The Good Things Café, on the Sheep’s Head peninsula. And, in my humble view, what makes The Good Things great is the fact that I have never had a bad meal there. That’s what it takes to make a great restaurant, consistency.

Is Husk a great restaurant? I decided to put my code to the test, I would go back again before I left Charleston.

And that’s exactly what i did. Forty-eight hours later to be precise. Again, I put my name on the wait-list for the balcony and again I didn’t have long to wait.

This time, I started with Slow-cooked Marinated Pork Belly, with Pickled Greens and Asian Spices wrapped in Lettuce Leaves. Then it was time to sample the Cornmeal-dusted North Carolina Catfish, Pepper Mash Glazed Fried Cabbage with Sweet Corn, Charred Okra, Green Tomato Chow Chow.

Slow-cooked marinated pork belly.

Slow-cooked Marinated Pork Belly.

All delicious, all expertly cooked and served, and each one adding to the overall eating experience at Husk.

Charlestonians are indeed very lucky to have such a restaurant to enjoy and savour. Serving the finest southern ingredients, Sean Brock and his team at Husk have created a foodie oasis for this weary traveller. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Husk and Charleston have restarted my somewhat stalled American road trip.

North Carolina Catfish

North Carolina Catfish

All that’s left is the question: ‘Is Husk a great restaurant?’.

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Well, in my humble opinion, for what it’s worth, I would have to say that Husk IS a great restaurant, and WHEN I get back to Charleston again, I will head first for the Elliott House Inn, drop off the luggage and then make my way to Husk for a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch and an evening of great southern food.

 

 

The good life in the Lowcountry (or how Charleston saved my American adventure).

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Life in the Lowcountry.

I had just about resigned my taste buds to overly sweet or very salty food and my American journey to rainy weather, the sound of motorbikes screaming to be put out of their misery and the vision of a never-ending highway when I loaded up the car and programmed the GPS for ‘get me the hell out of here’.

Now, I know I didn’t see Myrtle Beach at its best, well, weather-wise anyway, but in a journey that had, up to that point, been full of wonder and awe, Myrtle Beach sucked all the joy out of my American road trip.

Goodbye to a very grey Myrtle Beach

Goodbye to a very grey Myrtle Beach.

With the rain still falling, I left the motel at 7am. An hour later, the clouds began to clear and I could just make out the blue South Carolinian sky that I had been promised. The landscape changed from grey seashore to green pines and live oaks lining the roadside and when I stopped to get breakfast there was an aroma of sea salt mixed with pine and sage.

The clouds disappeared as I continued my journey south and, with all the highway signs and the GPS pointing the way to Charleston, suddenly life wasn’t so bad after all.

Charleston was to be the highlight of my trip – promises of southern charm, a rich historical legacy, great food and really nice accommodation fueled my journey at this point and, boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

All I can say is thank goodness for Charleston.

From the moment I arrived, taking the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge across the Cooper River on to the peninsula and arriving at The Elliot House Inn, I could tell that this is a very special city.

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge gateway to Charleston.

Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, gateway to Charleston.

Tucked away, within walking distance of the ‘Battery’ which is at the tip of the peninsula, Elliott House is perfectly positioned for those who like to explore the city on foot. At the Battery, I paused looking out on Charleston Bay where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet before they join and head off out into the Atlantic. And there, still standing like a sentry in the bay, I got my first sight of just one of the main reasons that my journey to Charleston was so important.

The  Elliott House Inn

The Elliott House Inn.

On the horizon, about three miles from where I stood, was Fort Sumter.

This is where the first shots were fired and the Civil War began. This fort in the middle of the bay saw the first acts that tore a country apart. Some 600,000 deaths later and the Union flag was raised once more in Charleston Bay.

Approaching Fort Sumter.

Approaching Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter would have to wait until the morning. Right now, as the warm breeze made me feel alive again, I needed to sample some of that southern cuisine I’d heard so much about.

The city is packed with restaurants but the good people at Elliott House had recommended a very special eatery just a couple of doors down the road from the inn.

Husk was voted one of the best new restaurants in the USA when it first opened a few years ago and it was there that I hoped to redeem my faith in American cuisine.

Husk where dreams of good food come through.

Husk – where dreams of good food come true.

At Husk they have a simple policy: ‘If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door’. James Beard Award-Winning Chef Sean Brock’s menu changes almost everyday and that was just what I was looking for.

I naively ambled up the steps, through the doors and asked to make a reservation for one for dinner later that evening.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the receptionist in a lovely southern drawl, ‘reservations are closed for the rest of the week.’

Time for the Irish brogue and a bit of charm, I thought.

‘Oh, that is disappointing,’ I said. ‘I’ve come all this way and had heard such good things about Husk. Is there any way I could eat here before I leave?’ I asked.

‘Well, let me see,’ the southern belle said, looking through her reservations book.

‘You could put your name on the waiting list for our balcony, but you would need to be here at 5.30pm tomorrow evening. After that it is first come, first served and I can’t confirm at what time, if at all, we could seat you.’

‘Perfect,’ I said, ‘that’s what I’ll do then.’

As I headed off out into the Charleston evening, I knew that at least I could sit at the very impressive bar in Husk tomorrow evening, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy one or two Mint Juleps, perhaps.

Then, I just went next door to another restaurant, Poogan’s Porch, where I got my first taste of good southern cuisine: a fried oyster salad and some southern fried chicken with all the fixins. And it proved to be an excellent introduction to fine food in the Holy City.

Oh, in case you think I’ve gone mad – to a lot of people back home the Holy City is somewhere else entirely – Charleston is known (locally anyway) as the Holy City because of its many churches; there seems to be one conveniently located on almost every street.

One of the beautiful cobblestone streets in Charleston.

One of the beautiful cobblestone streets in Charleston.

The next morning, my mission was to see Fort Sumter. I made my way to the quayside where I would take the boat out to the little rocky island in the bay.

On the trip out to the fort, I got my first view of the city from the water. Back on the peninsula, the narrow tree-lined streets have survived wars, floods and earthquakes. Charleston was once the richest city in the US and it retains that antebellum charm that I imagined made it a real southern city.

From the water, looking back towards the city, you see the beautiful houses that line the quayside along the Battery and the docks that once exported the bountiful produce from the great plantations of South Carolina: cotton, indigo and rice or ‘Carolina Gold’ as it was called. The plantations along the Ashley and Cooper rivers, with their thousands of slaves, fed the merchants of Charleston who in turn sent these goods to Northern factories and mills or across the Atlantic to the textile mills of England and France.

The Battery.

The Battery.

This is another legacy of the city, a city that grew rich on the labour of thousands of enslaved people. This history is still evident today with echoes of the past everywhere to be seen: the big houses, the ornate gardens and parks, and the slave market, all standing as a reminder of a Charleston from a different time and a different world.

The houses of Charleston have a very distinctive style and the gardens are just  beautiful.

The houses of Charleston have a very distinctive style and the gardens are just beautiful.

As I made my way out to Fort Sumter, I began to imagine the scene when the first shot was fired on that April morning back in 1861. That morning, over 150 years ago, on the Battery where I stood yesterday, there would have been hundreds of people cheering as the shot and shell smashed into the walls of the fort three miles away.

The silent guns at Fort Sumter

The silent guns at Fort Sumter.

The ladies of Charleston arrived in their carriages, parasols waving as they encouraged the men to stand and fight for southern rights and freedom.

‘Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.’

With this, South Carolina proclaimed that it was willing to fight and to die to preserve its way of life and the southern cause.

Palm tree lined streets.

Palm tree-lined streets.

At the fort, which was only abandoned as a military facility after the Second World War, I saw for the first time the flags of the United States of America (USA) and the Confederate States of America (CSA) flying together. Sumter is now the responsibility of the National Parks Service and, like all the battlefields, it is maintained and preserved for future generations.

Looking back towards the city from Fort Sumter.

Looking back towards the city from Fort Sumter.

As I stood on the highest point at Fort Sumter and looked back towards Charleston in the hazy distance, I could just make out the Battery. While, as the name ‘the Battery’ suggests, there were guns placed along the length of the water front at this point in 1861, these guns did not take part in the bombardment. The range was too great.

Flying together over Fort Sumter.

Flying together over Fort Sumter.

I took my notes and listened to the rangers explain the events that took place here back in 1861 but I have to admit that my mind was on all things ‘eatable’ and my evening ahead at Husk.

As the ferry left the dock and headed back toward Charleston, I knew that my journey had formed a life of its own; from now on, my story and my Confederate would lead the way.

But first it was time to get something to eat.

A trip to the beach – Myrtle Beach.

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Rain, Rain and more Rain…

Who knew, it rains in America! Well, I mean I knew that the continent experiences inclement weather every now and again, but I thought that there would be blue skies and sunny days while I was here.

I expected that, as I made my way south, I would add the experience of an American beach trip to my itinerary. Looking at the map, and once again relying on my TV education, I saw that Myrtle Beach was on my route to Charleston, so I decided to spend a few days reading, writing and working on getting rid of my ‘farmer’s tan’.

The less than even all over tan.

The less-than-even-all-over tan.

Well, when I arrived in Myrtle Beach, I found the storm clouds had beaten me to the shoreline. Indeed, not only was there stormy weather on the horizon but Hurricane Bertha was brewing off shore and making its way towards the Carolinas.

A very grey Myrtle Beach between rain showers.

A very grey Myrtle Beach between rain showers.

Now, I’m used to wet weather. I’m Irish, and a couple of summers ago at home on the peninsula, it rained for over 40 days, right through July and August, so a little rain in the summer is no big deal.

But I really, naively I suppose, thought that when I went to America, especially the southern states, my days would be filled with sunshine and warm breezes. Oh, how wrong I was.

Boy, did it rain. We’re talking about visibility reducing rain, rain that started with little or no warning. Thunder and lightning, torrential rain and Bertha heading my way – welcome to Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach is noisy, tacky, expensive and, without a doubt, a great place to bring kids on holidays. It has everything from roller coasters, water parks and video amusements to tacky souvenir shops, fast food and, of course, a white sandy beach that goes on for miles.

Rain, rain and rain.

Rain, rain and more rain.

The Atlantic Ocean provides waves to surf and wildlife such as dolphins, whales and pelicans to spot. Spot, that is, if the rain got out of the way. So, for the first day I got a quick glimpse of the beach as I dodged between showers and lightning strikes. Finally, I decided to hunker down in the motel room and get on with some reading and writing.

The farmer’s tan would have to travel home with me.

As I set up my desk in the room, overlooking the rain-soaked main strip below, I began to welcome this time where, between the traveling and the novel research, I could get some good reading and a bit of writing done as well.

Still more rain.

Still more rain.

Then the rain stopped.

And the noise began.

While the rain had let up for now, it was never far away and the dark clouds were ever present.

Suddenly, the street outside was filled with the noise of motor bikes.

Now, at home in Ireland we have motor bikes, I know what they sound like, I know that there are many different types and makes.

The noise begans.

The noise begins.

But I have never heard the like of the sounds these bikes in America make (nor do I have any idea how they are allowed on the roads).

If I heard this noise coming from any form of machinery back home, I would presume that the owner was on his or her way to the mechanic to have the car or bike or tractor fixed or, failing that, put out of its misery!

The noise continued until it started to rain again or until 3am, if it stayed dry.

Let me describe the sound if I can. First, you hear the motor bike approaching with what sounds like a tractor engine or some other piece of heavy machinery at full throttle with either a cat caught in the pistons or, as I thought when I first heard it, an engine shaking every nut, bolt and valve loose as it makes its way down the road, leaving a trail of broken oily parts in its wake.

Now, these bikes never travel alone. Oh no, there is alway a minimum of four of these noise hounds ‘cruisin’, I think the word is, up and down the road at any given time.

The purpose of this ‘cruise’ is not to get from point A to point B. Oh no, this is apparently all about being seen and heard.

It was then that I realised my motel was positioned right at the end of the main mile-long beach strip. So, these noise merchants would travel from one end of the street to the other, over and over again. All night long.

I began to pray for rain.

It got worse.

There seemed to be a pattern to the peaks and troughs of these tortured engines. The bikes would come rumbling along and then, suddenly, explode in a scream of revving engines and even some back-firing.

Next, they would rumble on down the road again. This explosion of noise seemed to be only happening outside my window and I began to feel the bikers were out to torture me.

However, when explaining my need for sleep and some quiet to a barman (yes, I was driven to drink), he enlightened me to the reasons behind the all the noise on the street below my window.

The Myrtle Beach board walk.

The Myrtle Beach boardwalk.

It appears that the bikers were not trying to drive me insane after all. This is how it works…apparently. As you cruise along on your ‘hog’, rumbling along if you will, you’re not just out for a pleasant drive. Indeed, you are on a mission; for every good lookin’ lady you see, you drop the bike into neutral, rev the hell out of the engine until she looks at you, and then you go on your way, the ultra cool real man that you are.

Bertha is out there at the end of the pier.

Bertha is out there at the end of the pier.

Big and loud equals good looking and ultra masculine.

The next night I sat on a bench and watched this bizarre mating ritual like an anthropologist from a distant country studying a newly discovered tribe.

And there it was, just as the barman had said, only it wasn’t confined to the bikers, cars filled with young men, rap music blaring as loudly as possible, were engaged in the same behaviour, revving their engines and sounding their horns as they also cruised down the strip.

While Myrtle Beach may be a very popular location for American holiday makers, it’s not for me. But I am glad I got to see this part of American culture, in all its noisy, trashy, deep-fried, sugar candy, brash glory. However, I will not be heading back to Myrtle Beach anytime soon.

Now it’s on to Charleston and hopefully some peace and quiet.

Baseball

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Let’s go down to the ball park…

You can’t experience America without going to a baseball game. This was what the voice (one of the voices) in my head told me as I crossed the Atlantic.

I sat there, trapped in my seat at 33,000ft, making out a list of all the places I was going to visit, the food I would eat and every other American experience I could think of, and a trip to a baseball game was one that I had to experience.

Now, as any of my friends and family will tell you, if you can’t eat it, relax on it or catch it with rod and line, then I’m not much use to you.

I used to play our national game, hurling, but found that chasing a small ball around a field with a big stick while trying to avoid 15 other guys with sticks chasing the same ball was not for me. Especially not after I saw what one of those ‘sticks’ did to a friend of mine who put his hand out in an attempt to catch the aforementioned ball. Let’s just say, the broken fingers were the least of his problems.

Anyway, I never understood the obsession with all these ball-based sports, so there we are…

However, I am glad I got to experience baseball and everything that goes with a trip to the ball park.

Getting ready for the first pitch at  Clipper Magazine Stadium

Getting ready for the first pitch at Clipper Magazine Stadium

In Lan-kiss-ter, the local ball team is the Lancaster Barnstormers and I was off to the Clipper Magazine Stadium on a glorious summer’s evening to experience not only the baseball but the complete show that is a night at the ball park.

And what a show it was; there was a carnival atmosphere right from the moment we arrived.

The stadium was like a theme park, with carnival rides for the kids, music, and pre-game entertainments that included a frisbee-catching dog, mascot racing and competitions for tickets to see One Direction in concert. That last one had every pre-teen girl in the stadium on her feet rushing to sign-up to be included in the draw.

Swing batter, swing...

Swing, batter, swing…

Tonight, the Barnstormers were about to take on the Bridgeport Bluefish and, if the excitement in the stadium was anything to go by, it was going to be a hell of a game. Or was that the chance of One Direction tickets?

I’m going with the impending baseball game and I was looking forward to immersing myself in all things baseball. It was going to be a great night.

A great night, that is, if you understand baseball, which I didn’t (and still don’t, by the way) but I settled into my seat and prepared myself for this American institution.

Now, I had help to guide me on this baseball journey and while I listened intently to the sage words of my companion, I have to admit that 99 percent of what was going on was, and still is, a complete mystery to me.

Listening but not getting it at all...very confused...

Listening but not getting it at all…very confused…

However, there was one tradition I completely embraced. Before the first pitch of the game, we had to get our hot dogs and beer. It’s the law apparently, and I didn’t want to get arrested. So when in Rome, as the saying goes, or in this case, when at Clipper Magazine Stadium, you need to get your hot dog and beer before the first inning gets underway (that’s baseball for the start of the game).

And, let me tell you, while the play on the field was really confusing, the hot dog and beer was really great!

So, settling in, the evening unfolded. At the end of each inning, there was more entertainment and prizes to give away. T-shirts were launched into the crowd using a giant catapult, the mascots danced around the stadium and kids were taken on to the field to take part in races and other prize-winning games.

There was one home run, one of the few times the bat actually connected with the ball, and the commercial advertising during the game was a sight to see.

A few times, the batter managed to hit the ball out of the ball park. This didn’t count as the ball went out over the back of the stadium behind where the batter and umpire were standing. But, every time this happened, the big screen immediately flashed up a ‘I hope he has insurance’ sign followed by the sound of breaking glass and then an ad for the local insurance company.

Clipper Magazine Stadium

Clipper Magazine Stadium

Brilliant.

Each of the nine innings were brought to us by various local companies. The free t-shirts and baseballs were sponsored by another company. Indeed, every aspect of the night’s entertainment was connected with some company or organisation. The evening was a huge outdoor advertising venue for local businesses and groups.

At the seventh inning, we all rose to our feet for the ‘seventh-inning stretch’ and the singing of the baseball anthem: ‘Take me out to the ball game’.

It was a most enjoyable evening. I’m still in the dark when it comes to the ins and outs of baseball but when it comes to a great night out, especially where there is beer and hot dogs on offer, then
I confess that I might, just might, mind, become a convert to America’s national game.

Highway Stories

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America is going by in a blur.

I’ve hit Civil War overload. It has become all-consuming and I am now missing other aspects, important aspects, of the trip as I travel south.

I have decided to loosen the straps of conflict, of the battles and the soldiers, the weapons and the reasons why or why not, and the overwhelming statistics that are all right now threatening to take over my story.

It’s time to leave the numbers of dead behind for a while, to put aside the number of bullets used or the amount of bread and fodder consumed by the opposing armies.

It’s time to look around and taste something of the countryside through which I am traveling. After all, this is where I have set my story; I need to see what, even if it is 150 years later, it is like to live here.

Richmond Virginia

Richmond, Virginia

I am driving south through North Carolina and I have decided that I am going to let the somewhat dormant reporter in me bubble to the surface, for a couple of days at least, and ‘report’ on what I see going on around me.

When I headed off to the battlefields, I listened to a book on 22 CDs called General Lee and his Army. This got me into the right frame of mind for the history I was about to witness. But now, I have switched off the monotone voice, found a satellite radio station playing non-stop American rock from the 1980s and pointed the car south along Interstate 95.

The James River in Richmond

The James River in Richmond

With music from the likes of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and a group called ‘Golden Earring’ as my sound track, I let America unfold before me.

Immediately, I noticed the farmland as it varied from county to county and from state to state. From tobacco and corn to peanuts and peaches, the different regions changed with every mile I traveled.

Abe and Tad

Abe and Tad

I switched off the GPS, left the interstate behind, got lost, found my way again and, for the first time since I got here, began to really see something of the country.

I stopped at lonely diners where truckers mixed with farmers as they drank their coffee and ordered their biscuits and gravy or their eggs and grits.

Now, for all you ‘grits’ virgins out there, grits is, and my American readers will forgive me here I’m sure, flavourless porridge … well, that’s what it tasted like to me anyway.

I eavesdropped on the conversations of fellow diners, which ranged from the cost of animal feed and diesel to baseball and football. One subject that I found repeated from Lancaster to North Carolina is the division that there seems to be between blue collar America and, as one gentleman in White Hill, NC, called them, “those damn environmentalists”.

It seems, according to the guys at the counter of the White Hill Diner, that any of these groups that obstruct ‘real’ American jobs, are unpatriotic.

“We all need ‘real’ jobs. Not jobs for computer jockeys or call centres but real American jobs,” one man told his fellow diners as they drank their coffee.

While he didn’t expand on what ‘real’ American jobs are, I assume these jobs involve heavy machinery, power tools and digging.

Civil War chains real American chains made by real Americans.

Civil War chains – real American chains made by real Americans.

I drove on, back to the interstate, and I began to notice the wonderful advertising billboards and signs that are dotted along the roadside.

‘Grandma’s Gun Shack, for all your shooting needs. Take Exit 13’. Or ‘Finger lickin’ KFC, we’ve got livers and gizzards, Exit 21′.

The billboards advertise everything from dog grooming to Viagra, insurance to plastic surgery but my favourite was, ‘Arrested? You need to call Joel at Criminal Lawyers for U’, this with a picture of Joel smiling (or is it sneering?) down on the highway.

Then, of course, there are the patriotic signs that manage to advertise the goods or services on offer but also remind the passing drivers that it’s good to be an American.

‘Dodge Trucks, the trucks that built America’. Or ‘Lions Den, adult boutique. America’s favourite playground’. Yeah, I’m not sure about that one…

On my way here (to South Carolina), I stopped off at Hampton Roads in Virginia. This expanse of water, which sees the James River empty into Chesapeake Bay, is the site of a famous Civil War naval battle (sorry, but I had to see this) and it was here that the world’s navies were changed for ever. This was the site of the first-ever gun battle between metal or ironclad warships.

Hampton Roads

Hampton Roads

Anyway, when I arrived, I walked out on to a wooden pier that was the viewing point for many of the locals who turned out to see the battle over 150 years ago. Today, the pier serves as a lovely spot to walk your dog or to catch some fish.

Ironclads

Ironclads

As I made my way to the end of the pier, I noticed a little boy, about 10 years old I’d say, excitedly fighting with the reel on his small, light fishing rod that was almost bent over in a perfect loop.

“I’ve got somethin’, I’ve definitely got somethin,” he shouted at his father who was standing next to him.

As I watched the little boy ‘fight’ his fish out of the water and on to the pier, other fishermen called out encouragement and as the fish – it looked like a plaice or a flounder or some other species of flat fish to me – was lifted clean out of the water and on to the pier, there was a big round of applause from all present.

Fishing on the pier

Fishing on the pier

The little boy was clearly delighted with his catch. His father got his camera out to take a photo and, as the boy stood there proudly displaying his fish for the camera, he said:

“Take that, Mother Nature!”

Clearly, not one of those unpatriotic environmentalists then.

Antietam

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The Bloodiest Day.

Click your fingers. Click them again.

Now click them every second for six hours. If you could manage to do this, and still feel your fingers and hands, you would have clicked 21,600 times.

That’s the number of soldiers who were killed or wounded in the same six-hour period on the battlefield of Antietam.

That’s one every second.

Antietam is a river, or as they say over here, a creek, snaking its way through the rolling countryside outside the little town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. This town was another one of those quiet, peaceful places caught up in the war that was raging around it. Peaceful that is until the army of Northern Virginia and the army of the Potomac found themselves drawn together for what was to be the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War.

You’ll have to forgive me; my trip is not in chronological order and to tell the story of the battle at Antietam we have to go back to September 1862, that’s almost a year before Gettysburg.

Bear in mind that while Gettysburg was fought over three days and inflicted more than 50,000 casualties, a mind-boggling number, Antietam was fought in just one day, one day with over 21,000 men dead or wounded.

As I made my way to Maryland from Pennsylvania, I tried to imagine the impact of this battle on the people who back home around their fireplaces in New York, Washington, Richmond and Charleston read about the battle and saw the casualties list printed in their local papers.

This type of warfare was totally unheard of here in America and it was not until the bloody battles of the First World War, 52 years later, that these numbers of dead and wounded would be surpassed.

When George W. and I arrived at Antietam’s visitor centre, what first struck me was how small the battlefield is. The numbers of dead and wounded had a lot to do with the clash of the two armies in such a small space but it was also the result of the sheer violence and determination with which both sides set about their grizzly work on that day in September, 1862.

Long after the battle, local farmers would find relics of the death and destruction wrought over their lands and their homes. One farmer found evidence of just how much of a storm of lead the two armies produced when he found two Minié balls (bullets) embedded together. These bullets had collided in mid-air. Imagine the numbers of bullets flying through the air to create this piece of Civil War memorabilia?

Anyway, my first stop, which was within walking distance of the visitor centre, is perhaps one of the unlikeliest buildings you’ll find on a battlefield anywhere in the world.

The Dunker Church at Antietam

The Dunker Church at Antietam

The Dunker Church, a simple, white, wooden cabin, that on the day of the battle stood directly in the path of the two armies as they deployed to face one another, was the place of worship for a German pacifist sect that had settled in the area many generations before. It is ironic that soon this pacifist church would bear witness to so much brutality.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the history of that day back in 1862. I think that I have become numb and desensitized to the sheer violence of the conflict in which I have set my story; I feel I have to ease up on the battlefield fact and figures.

Gettysburg has changed me.

Burnside's bridge across the Antietam river

Burnside’s Bridge across the Antietam river

Anyway, this battle, like all those before it and after, was supposed to end the war. On the Union side, they saw Antietam as an opportunity to deal the Rebel Confederates a knock-out blow and then capture Richmond and restore the Union. For the Confederates, Antietam was to be the battle that would force the Union to sue for peace and would also result in international recognition for the cause of southern freedom.

Neither side would achieve its goals.

Antietam should have been a great victory for the Yankees; after all, they had the complete plans and troop dispositions of the Rebel army. In an amazing stroke of luck, the Union general in charge, the 35 year-old boy general, General George B. McClellan obtained an order sent from General Lee to one of his field commanders. This order outlined his plans for the coming battle and explained where he wanted the troops deployed.

These plans were found by two Union soldiers on the roadside wrapped around three cigars.

The Wheat Field where the Irish marched towards the Sunken Lane.

The Wheat Field where the Irish marched towards the Sunken Lane.

But even with these battle plans, and with Union forces almost twice the size of his opponent’s, McClellan was unable to destroy General Lee and his Rebel army.

Nevertheless, Antietam was, in some ways, a Union victory. Lee did retreat back into Virginia but his army remainedl intact, badly bloodied, but still a dangerous force ready to come out and do battle again. McClellan was convinced that Lee had a much bigger army and he had to ensure that he was able to protect Washington. This was the excuse to his President when he tried to explain why he did not pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lincoln didn’t believe him and soon after the battle McClellan was replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

There is, however, one action during this battle that I have to mention. Once again, it involves the Union Irish Brigade and, once again, they march straight into the storm of metal that left many of them dead and wounded. And again, they, the now famous Irishmen of the Union army, waded knee-deep in the blood of the Confederates they met in the sunken lane.

The Sunken Lane was (and still is) a ready-made trench and the Rebels poured into the lane and began to take a terrible toll on the advancing Yankees. Then, the green flag appeared and the Irish marched out of a corn field and headed straight for the waiting Confederates.

The Sunken Lane or Bloody Lane as it was soon to be known

The Sunken Lane or Bloody Lane as it was soon to be known

As the Irish poured fire into the lane, the tightly-packed Rebels began to suffer terribly as men fell, causing the once perfect trench to become a lane-way filled with the dead and dying. Some of the Irish made it to the end of the lane and from this position began to fire into the flanks and the rear of the Rebels, who by now were trying to retreat out of the Sunken Lane and form a new battle line in a better position.

Over the fence line at Antietam

Over the fence line at Antietam

As the Irish crossed the fence line and looked down into the lane, the sight that met them was indeed horrifying.

Wicklow Granite for the Iris Brigade monument at Antietam

Wicklow granite for the Irish Brigade monument at Antietam

“The lane was full of blood, many of the wounded were buried under their dead comrades and were calling for mercy. I have never seen so much pain and suffering and I have no desire to see its likes again,” Private John McCarthy of the 69th New York Infantry wrote to his father after the battle.

But now, it’s time to move on; to move on to Richmond and the gateway to the south.

General Meagher.

General Meagher.

It’s time to bring the Confederate home.

The American list.

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Diner time.

Growing up in Ireland, in the 70s and 80s, we learned all we needed to know about America from our TV sets.

So, armed with episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Dallas and Kojak, my American education consisted of little girls getting into all sorts of adventures, rich oil barons with big cowboy hats committing adultery and drinking huge amounts of whiskey, and learning that I should stay away from New York City because of the number of violent murders taking place on, what seemed to me, an hourly basis.

Apart from all that, there were just two other American institutions that I carried with me down through the years and that I promised myself I would experience if I ever made my way across the Atlantic.

Firstly, and this might seem a bit strange to you all, I told myself that if ever I made it to New York (without being murdered and appearing on Kojak), the first thing I would do would be to get a hot dog from one of the street vendors.

Whenever I saw those vendors with their carts on TV I always thought how cool this would be. It just seems so exotic and, well, American. You must remember that when I was growing up in the Ireland of the 1970s, we didn’t have a McDonalds. Indeed, I remember when the first pizza was seen in a Cork city restaurant; it caused all manner of debate and discussion as to what it was and how you were supposed to eat it.

After that, my idea of glamour and total Americana was a visit to a diner. Again, we had nothing like this back home and the idea of going to a restaurant for your breakfast, your breakfast … was just completely mad and out of this world to a very impressionable kid from a rain-soaked island in the Atlantic.

Well, this week I was able to cross one of these off my list when I paid a visit to DJs Diner in Lancaster.

Welcome to DJs.

Welcome to DJs.

Now, DJs is no ordinary diner, far from it; DJs is stuck in some sort of time warp and when you walk through the doors, you’re suddenly transported back to the 1950s.

While you stand there and your eyes adjust to the colours and the polished chrome, Buddy Holly is singing ‘That’ll be the day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’ on the jukebox in the corner. The waitresses all have big hair and bobby socks and as we take our seats, they arrive, their big skirts swooshing between the tables and the other lucky people who have discovered DJs.

DJs clock stuck in the 1950s

DJs clock stuck in the 1950s.

The menu has all the favourites: burgers, melts, root beer floats and ice cream sundaes, but I thought that in a place like this they must have a good hot dog. And they did.

One of the waitresses. Notice the ear rings

One of the waitresses. Notice the ear rings.

While it’s not quite a ‘killing two birds with one stone’ kinda thing (I hope to go to New York and get my street vendor hot dog before I return home), the hot dog at DJ’s was fantastic.

Oh Yeah!

Oh, yeah!

A foot-long hot dog with sauerkraut, mustard and ketchup. Oh, yeah.
I also decided to go ‘full piggy’ and get a side of French fries (chips for those at home) and I will say this for the Yanks, they sure know how to make a good french fry.

It was just incredible.

Happy customers at DJs.

Happy customers at DJs.

As we left, I decided that I was going to come back to DJs for breakfast some morning and that’s exactly what I did this morning.

Now, breakfast at a diner is a totally different experience. Firstly, the waitress, still in bobby socks and big hair, brings you a mug and some coffee. Then she brings you the menu, and what a menu. I never knew there were so many ways to cook eggs. There are pancakes, large and small, plain or filled with blue berries and chocolate chips, all stacked high on the plate. Then there are biscuits (which looked like scones to me) and gravy, that’s right gravy, and lots of bacon, ham, sausage and even steak.

Bacon seemed to be the meat of choice for most here at DJs this morning but it’s not bacon as we in Ireland would recognise it. This bacon here is cooked until it is as crispy as a cracker and served with eggs and pancakes. I thought, ok, bacon, eggs and pancakes, all on the one plate why not and was about to order it when I saw one person cover their bacon with maple syrup and wrap it in a pancake.

In fact, everyone who had ordered this breakfast was busy putting the sugary sweet syrup all over their salty bacon. This was for me too much. I don’t have a sweet tooth and I have to say it all seems too bizarre. I know, I should have tried it and I will before I head home but I chickened out and ordered eggs, sausage and toast.

I was too shy to sit at the counter.

I was too shy to sit at the counter.

Then came the difficult part, and thank you TV for arming me with the proper response.

‘How would you like your eggs cooked,’ the 1950s waitress asked.

Where my answer came from I don’t know but without thinking I said, ‘Over easy’.

Now, I had no idea what I had just asked for. I guessed that the eggs would be turned, but surely the cook would turn them easily and carefully without being told? I mean, if you turn an egg hard it will break … right? Maybe that’s another way people like them? Anyway, at home the only choice you get is boiled, fried, poached or scrambled. That’s it.

And another thing: the American sausage is not what I’m used to, and I’ll leave it at that.

My breakfast also came with another American morning staple, hash browns. Again they were not the hash browns we are used to at home. These were grated, real potatoes, quickly fried and then piled high on the plate. Yum…

Eggs over easy, sausage, hash brown , toast and coffee.

Eggs over easy, sausage, hash brown, toast and coffee.

So, one down and one to go.

I will be back again and I hope to eat at a lot more diners as I make my way south towards Charleston. I will be loading up George W. on Sunday next, 27 July, saying farewell to Lancaster for a while and heading off towards Richmond, Virginia.

This diner is known locally as the 'Shinny Diney'

This diner is known locally as the ‘Shiney Diney’

The adventure continues.

Duty, Honour, Country. The US Military Academy at West Point.

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Duty, Honour, Country.

I’ve always fancied myself as a soldier.

This obsession with soldiering goes back to my grandfather’s stories of derring-do around the family fireplace and evenings spent sitting on his knee watching films like ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ or my all time favourite ‘A Bridge Too Far’.

Of course, in my version of a military career, I saw myself as the dashing young officer leading his men on to victory, while ignoring the wounds I’d received (nothing drastic, you understand, maybe a cut to the arm or a graze to the head, something heroic but not life-threatening) while capturing the enemy position. Then, back to headquarters in time for tea and medals.

Well, that was my idea of soldiering anyway. The fact that I was never any good at sports, that I am not very happy outdoors in bad weather, that I don’t like being cold or wet and that while I’ve never been shot at, I’m 100 percent certain I wouldn’t like it, were all put to one side and I did, for a fleeting moment, consider applying for an officer cadetship with the Irish Defense Forces.

One look at the physical requirements called a halt to my military career; never mind the necessary academic standards. So, that was the end of that.

During the fleeting moment when I saw myself as a military cadet, I remember reading about the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and the US Military Academy at West Point. I have always been fascinated by the tradition and service of these institutions and when I set about planning my trip to the US I was determined not only to visit West Point but to make the academy an important part of the research for my novel.

The parade ground at West Point.

The parade ground at West Point.

And so, I saddled up George W. and we headed off to upstate New York, to the town of Highland Falls and the US Military Academy at West Point.

When I arrived at ‘The Point’, I headed first for the visitor centre where I joined the scores of Chinese tourists who were waiting for a tour of the academy. You have to show your passport to get a tour ticket; after all, the base is a working military installation.

My interest in the academy, as part of my research, is focused on the day-to-day life of the cadets during the 1850s. And I was delighted to see that many of the rules that govern a cadet’s life at the academy have not changed since those days before the Civil War.

But before we get into that,first, let me tell you a little something about what it takes to become a cadet at this renowned college because, apart from the military aspect to life here, West Point is a college that awards its alumni with Bachelor of Science degrees at the end of their four years.

Firstly, you have to be nominated to attend West Point by either the President of the United States, a Senator or a member of Congress. That’s the easy part.

You have to have excellent academic results, be above physically fit and, this is the really important quality, have what the army deems to be the ‘right stuff’.

Those chosen few with the 'Right Stuff'.

Those chosen few with the ‘right stuff’.

This ‘right stuff’ is undefinable to my mind. It seems to me that it’s a mixture of all of the above with a lot of qualities only the army seems to know. Anyway, if you consider yourself ready, qualified, and able, you can apply.

Last year, 16,500 men and women applied to the academy. They all had the nominations and the academic results because they wouldn’t be allowed to apply without them.

Some of the barracks and lecture halls at West Point

Some of the barracks and lecture halls at West Point

However, did they have the ‘right stuff’? Well, it seems that only 1,600 of these hopefuls did and were accepted to begin their training. I got to see some of these ‘Plebes’ as they are called as they faced their second week at the academy.

The inside of one of the churches at the Academy.

The interior of one of the churches at the Academy.

All fresh-faced and, to my eyes, impossibly young, these men and women had arrived at the beginning of July, said goodbye to their family and friends, got their heads shaved (only the men) and began what would be for many of them a life-long commitment to their country and the armed forces.

The ‘Plebes’, I was informed by a member of staff, are only allowed to answer an instructor’s or teacher’s question by using one of the four following responses, no other response is allowed.

So, this is how it goes. The instructor asks a question. The cadet must respond using one of these:

Number 1: Yes, Sir!
Number 2: No, Sir!
Number 3: Sir, I do not understand, Sir!
Number 4: No excuse, Sir!

That’s it, nothing else is acceptable.

There are over 4,000 cadets training at West Point at the moment. They all eat together in the mess hall; all 4,000 at the same time. Each meal is served, as they say here, ‘family style’ and all 4,000 are in and out of the mess hall within 25 minutes. That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, 25 minutes.

Apart from military training, each cadet studies a vast array of subjects including: politics, engineering, chemistry, computer science, economics, geography, history and a lot more as well.

Also, each cadet must take part in at least one team sport while at the academy.

Apart from the updated subjects on offer at West Point these days, a cadet arriving at the academy in the 1850s would still recognize the traditions and procedures, the rules and what is expected of them.

West Point is a very challenging school both physically and mentally, just like it was in the 1850s, but unlike the cadets of today, the antebellum West Point was struggling with the darkening clouds of a civil war on the horizon as the officers and the cadets were forced to make the choice between the Union and the individual States they called home.

Some of the cadets from the 1850's

Some of the cadets from the 1850s

While most of the Generals on both sides during the Civil War were West Point graduates, indeed some of them were in the same class as the officers they now faced across the various battlefields, today at West Point, the memories of these troubled times are somewhat skipped over.

Names such as Lee, Grant, Pershing, Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur and Schwarzkopf are all remembered and revered. Indeed, even George Armstrong Custer has a monument in the graveyard reserved for all those who graduated from the college, while names like Longstreet, Hill, Jackson, Johnson, Beauregard or even Davis are not to be seen.

George Armstrong Custer's monument.

George Armstrong Custer’s monument.

And perhaps that’s right and proper; after all, to the victor goes the spoils.

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As I watched the new cadets march off towards the main buildings on the far side of the parade ground, it suddenly dawned on me why I wanted to be a soldier. Was it the discipline, the camaraderie, the guns?

No, it was the uniform … I would look damn good in one of those uniforms.