I’m turning this week’s edition of The Dichotomy of the Dog over to my dear wife Donna. She wrote the following story in 1993 for a zine we co-created called Volcano (Volcano, for those of you who never saw it, was the natural result of two writers marrying.) This story, in addition to being funny and very cool in its own right, will hopefully get you in the proper frame of mind for the next two weeks’ worth of stories, which will be called Dead Presidents (and the Men Who Love Them) and Searching for Buchanan. --Rich
While we were on our honeymoon, my husband and I went to see the Dead. Literally.
It started not long after I met him. We were eating lunch one day when he cautiously blurted out that one of his goals was to travel around the country and visit the graves of all the dead presidents, and that some people might think this was a weird idea.
"Oh, I don't," I said, all the while thinking to myself, "He's a little weird, but he's cute. I really like this guy."
Six months later, we were engaged, after a date to see Wayne Newton in concert proved to be the ultimate test of my love and stamina.
And then along came Mary (Surratt).
"She was framed!" Rich would yell. "She was totally innocent. The government was just looking for a scapegoat. It was the greatest miscarriage of justice in history!"
(In case you're not sure what Rich is ranting about, Mary Surratt was allegedly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She was ultimately hanged, becoming the first woman to be executed by the U.S. Federal Government.)
So we took the tour of the Clinton, Maryland farmhouse that was the tavern where Surratt lived and allegedly stowed binoculars and weapons for John Wilkes Booth. Surely, this was where the truth would be told and Rich's and Mary's troubled spirits could both be put to rest, or so he thought.
But as we moved from the tavern room, with its tables displaying tankards and checkers sets, to the kitchen and dining room, to the guest bedrooms and family bedrooms, and finally, to the attic, where the legend of the assassination plot was actually told, nary a clue about the heinous crime could be found, and the guide was decidedly noncommittal about Mary's guilt or innocence. We did learn, however, that Mary's humble headstone in Washington D.C.'s Mount Olivet Cemetery, bearing only the inscription, "Mrs. Surratt," had suffered the effects of time and was replaced with a newer one by the Surratt Society.
"I'd really like to try to find her grave while we're here," Rich said. And with that, it was decided that we would, but not without taking the "Complete Mary Surratt Tour."
At 604 H St., one can see the actual downtown Washington boarding house owned by Surratt, where John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators met to plot the assassination. It is now Go-Lo's Chinese Restaurant. (I highly recommend the shrimp and snow peas.) While we sat in Go-Lo's admiring what the new owners had done to the place and talking assassination theories, we plotted our next move to the gravesite.
We drove out to Mount Olivet, parked at the gate, and wondered how in the world we'd find Mary.
"Ask that policeman," I said, pointing to the patrol car parked a few yards away.
"Yeah, right," Rich said. "Like people come around here every day looking for Mary Surratt's grave."
But with enough prodding, he walked over with me to where the officer was standing, and I asked the patrolman if he could direct us to the grave.
"Take a left at the bottom of the hill and keep driving," he said without batting an eye. "She's at the top of the hill."
"I can't believe he knew that!" Rich exclaimed as we got back in the car.
We found her a short time later, her headstone set apart from all the other graves on the knoll. We stayed a solemn 20 minutes, took some video footage, which Rich narrated in a "Mary, we hardly knew ye" style, and left.
I guess it really shouldn't have surprised me at all then when, while our wedding party was having pictures taken at a 19th-century mansion, Rich insisted on having a picture taken of all the guys in our wedding party kneeling in the pet cemetery next to the house. That's when I knew there was no turning back: I had married him for better or perverse.
When we originally planned to drive up to New England for our honeymoon in October, we talked about going to Walden Pond, outside of Concord, Massachusetts.
"And you know," Rich casually remarked, "Henry David Thoreau isn't buried too far from there."
Here we go again.
We found out from the guide at the Concord Museum that Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were all buried in a small stretch of ground known as "Author's Ridge" in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Wow! Say no more! How do we get there?
The guide drew the directions on our tour map, and we were off, video camera in tow.
"Nobody will believe we did this on our honeymoon," I said as we climbed the steep path to the ridge.
We found Thoreau first. He had only a small, plain headstone marked, "Henry." We paused silently for a moment, then zoomed in on the headstone with the video camera, while Rich narrated.
"Did you know Thoreau had a thing for Emerson's wife?"
Hawthorne was next. There were semi-fresh cut flowers at the base of the grave.
"From a raving Scarlet Letter fan, no doubt," Rich narrated.
We moved on to the Alcotts, and then followed the sign pointing toward the Emerson plot.
"But it's only a big rock!" I said, staring in disappointment at the lump of stone in which Ralph Waldo Emerson’s marker was embedded. "Everybody else got a really nice headstone, and Ralph got a rock!"
We also found, as an extra bonus on our tour, the underrated creator of "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew." Even Rich didn't expect such a gift. Turn on the camera; let's get a shot of this.
Our families thought our honeymoon video was interesting, to say the least. Twenty-minute footage of a seagull on a cliff at Acadia National Park. A walk through Walden Woods when neither of us realized the video camera was on. (You need Dramamine to watch that part.) And a tour of the famous deceased citizens of Concord, Mass. Sheer romance.
What's next, you ask? I suggested London, but I was vetoed by Rich the Purist, who said we should really travel around America first. With this in mind, he offered me the following alternatives: driving around America to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing all the gravesites of dead presidents, or go to Mississippi and stay in the operating-room-turned-hotel-room where blues singer Bessie Smith died. And I know that no matter what I decide, one thing is certain: I've purchased a one-way, non-refundable ticket to my husband's mind. Life with him is going to make for some pretty interesting postcards.
(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing,
please let me know so I can sue you or something.)