The stale air hits me like a slap to the face: soupy, syrupy, strained like carrots in a baby food jar. I stand in the opening, both ready to step out onto the smoking sidewalk and to scramble back into the air conditioned solace of the building, stark choices on a stark day. The crowd makes the choice for me, however, shoving me unceremoniously out into the reality of a heatwave I wish had waited a week to arrive. I stumble into the blazing sunshine, suddenly sweaty with a perspiration that springs to my forehead, and cheeks, and everywhere else all at once.
“Is that the Liberty Bell?” Alexa asks, inquisitive as always. She doesn’t complain about the heat because I’m not sure she feels it. Oh, the joys of youth.
“That’s the building that houses the Liberty Bell, yes,” I tell her, nodding my head in the general direction of the structure itself, but she has stopped listening. Because, while this is a part of history, it’s not a part of her personal one, so to her it’s just one more thing she has to look at, that someone told her was special.
“And that’s Independence Hall,” I continue, pointing far out across the expanse of grass that separates the Liberty Bell building from the old Pennsylvania State House.
“How come the Liberty Bell isn’t up in Independence Hall?” asks Alexa, who appears to be listening to me again. I can never tell, except for when she opens her mouth.
“Why, because it’s cracked,” I say, but she doesn’t laugh, though I think my joke is funny. “They can’t very well ring a cracked bell,” I add. She still doesn’t laugh.
“It’s hot,” says Elaine, who wears a huge ballcap that nearly covers her eyes. She is apparently a fan of saying things that are obvious, but I don’t judge her for it. As it is indeed hot.
“It is indeed hot,” I tell her, as we cross the street, the five of us, high stepping it to avoid the left-turning traffic. Because we are in the City of Brotherly Love, the birthplace of this nation, the historical capital of America. But it’s 2019, far removed from the events that created this country, and even farther for teenagers to truly understand.
Because, while this may not have been a dream of theirs, the youngsters along for the ride, it has long been mine. Ever since I realized I was going to be a father, I wanted to show my children the history that was a part of my life pretty much from the very start. That history included the spring, where we used to bottle water on Sunday mornings in May, the corner of 58th and Baltimore Avenue, with its street corner vendors, and South Street, where I used to wile away the hours engaged in the arts scene.
And somewhere near the top of that list was what I had often taken for granted back when I was their age — the old city, with its cobblestones, with its tiny houses, tiny doorways, and a nostalgia you can only get in very few places in America. But that one wish took a while to come to fruition, because I didn’t want to just show them these places, to give them the canned speech about historical significance. I wanted them to be able to understand it on their own, to experience it just as I did that first time, and so many times after.
But things have changed.
When I was a kid we used to dance around the steps of Independence Hall, to skitter in and out of the building, checking out the revered rooms, upstairs and down, playing in the spaces in between the shadows where Jefferson, Franklin, and Hancock did some serious business some 200 years prior. For this excursion, however, we needed to get in line, to go through a red security tent and emerge on the other side hopeful that we wouldn’t have beeped on the way through metal detectors. The more things change, the more things change.
That old venerable bell was exactly the same as the ancient Hall, when it came to security. We waited in line with other sweaty tourists, as the sun poured down on our heads, as our turn to see this slice of history moved steadily closer to reality. But it was worth the trip. It was worth the heat, the humidity, the whining, the walking, worth every little thing we had to do to make it a reality, even if the kids didn’t seem to truly appreciate it in sections.
The children reminded me of myself, taking these things for granted, not truly recognizing their intrinsic value to this country we call our own. But they also reminded me that these memories can shift and change over time, and I’m certain that just getting the opportunity will stay with them until they reach a point where they can truly appreciate it. I’m certain it will.
A park ranger enters the cramped room, dressed in khaki from head to toe, different shades for to and bottom, but stylish just the same. She has on dark boots that click together when she walks past our seats, while we wait to go inside Independence Hall. The girls are fiddling with their hats, and their bracelets, and pretty much everything else they can find to fiddle with, but even they snap to attention when the ranger raises her voice to let us know we will be going in soon. I smile to myself because I remember it all, the feeling that there was always something better to do, but I smile, too, because now I see it from both sides.
“It’s time to go in now, sir,” another park ranger tells me, and I realize I’ve lost my focus, for a minute, for a second, for enough time to recall everything.
“Thank you,” I tell him, meaning it. I look over at my family and consider the alternatives. I’m very glad to be here.