"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 02 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

George Washington Lost Here


The steep, rocky hills and dense foliage of southwestern Pennsylvania stand out like a rain-worn middle finger to the notion of suburban sprawl as an incremental process. Unlike the flimsy developments thrown into giant Midwestern wheatfields like pennies on a New Delhi sidewalk, buildings in cities like East Fredricktown and Davidson cling to the earth as if they were fused to sixty-foot metal railroad spikes, daring the elements with Robert Mitchum-like swagger just to try and throw them into the nearest river.

The urban portions of the small towns and hamlets feel folded into each other in a desperate attempt to maximize prime real estate. Space is at such a premium that even the malls feel compressed — in a two-mile stretch of road near Uniontown where you'll find a city's worth of fast-food joints and sit-down chain restaurant franchises. If the Midwest offers the rest of the country its broad shoulders and the West Coast shows off its shapely, skating/jogging legs, then southwestern Pennsylvania's body part of choice is the trapezius.

Everywhere one looks, one can't help but see someone in a gray T-shirt who looks like a member of a scholastic wrestling team. Driving along Highway 40 East from Washington, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland makes one feel much better about the chances of the United States winning any future conventional ground war, no matter how protracted or ill-considered.

That's good news and, also, historically appropriate because using war as the measuring stick, southwestern Pennsylvania is America's cradle of civilization, with Interstates 68 and 70 as its concrete Tigris and Euphrates and the Fort Necessity National Battlefield as its Tell Hamoukar. The Fort Necessity National Battlefield is America's greatest, least-appreciated historic site —, a remarkable thing, given that its watershed event, a 1754 skirmish between British and French troops, took place well before the United States was a glimmer in a Virginia landowner's eye. One could argue that Fort Necessity's role as the public reason for a massive conflict between England and France (the Seven Years War or French and Indian War, which eventually went the Island's way) makes it more accurately the location of a great moment in English history. But given what happened to the colonies a few decades later, the Fort makes about as appealing a conversation piece for England as that final show-jumping trophy makes for the Reeve family.

From its snappy name to its clearheaded embrace of causes that echo the realities behind the American Revolution, to the cigarette-smoking federal employees attempting to answer park questions between puffs, Fort Necessity is all about America. Let us count the ways.

Real Causes, Real Fighting. After a childhood spent triple-teamed by Disney movies, elementary school textbooks and the insidious songwriting team of George Newall, Tom Yohe, and Bob Dorough, Fort Necessity serves as a blunt reminder that in the 18th century property, not principle, led to war. English landowners in Virginia wanted to move into prime Ohio Valley real estate; French colonists wanted to protect trade between Canada and New Orleans. The fort-building French and the road-building British eventually clashed with the grim inevitability of the competing crews from D.C. Cab. The French were aided by local Native American tribes, thanks in part to France's general policy to avoid committing genocide on them. The insta-fortress, built in extreme haste to defend the outnumbered British gave the battleground its name.

These are, of course, the same kind of brusquely-realized economic issues which helped fuel the American Revolution. The candor of the battlefield's exhibits on the subject may be due in part to the fact that both sides wore funny (non-American) uniforms, and that the battle made the sacrifices of dozens from that century's "Greatest Generation" look heroic in terms of their soldiering on behalf of a land-hungry, English colonial ruling class. Today, with the addition of the nearby Mt. Washington tavern as a testament to American leisure along its once-vital National Road, Fort Necessity has become a cross-century Nexus of American expansion ideals — property, locomotion, and consumption as entertainment.

Fort Necessity brought us George Washington. If we're going to be completely honest, the skirmish at Fort Necessity is remembered solely because it marked the original George W's first step onto the stage of world history — the same way Steve Allen and Milton Berle occasionally claim a place in Rock 'n Roll history because they provided showcases for Elvis Presley. Washington was the twenty-something land surveyor who led the troops to their encounter with the French, had the hastily-assembled fort built, named it, and negotiated the surrender after hours of almost completely one-sided bloodletting in a debilitating rainstorm. Needless to say, were he to run for the presidency today, it's the kind of incident that would lead to at least one attack ad.

For all his symbolic significance, America still has a Washington hang-up based on unfamiliarity —. He remains the father of our country in the sense of a dimly remembered face reading the evening paper, feet resting on the davenport, gold-toed socks pointed upward. Historians who focus on the intellectual and principled roots of the American Revolution sometimes offer little more information about Washington than how he was held in regard by more intellectually active leaders of the Continental Congress. Fort Necessity serves as that college yearbook photo which, if it doesn't explain everything about Washington, at least explains a little bit & #151 a somewhat pleasing snapshot of invention and improvisation, and (considering his troops had little to offer in defense of their scalps had they been charged instead of given an offer to surrender) blind luck. And neither Abraham Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt ever came up with a more amusing name for something — under pressure.

Fort Necessity keeps us humble. Unlike the national battlefields of the Civil or Revolutionary War, such as Gettysburg (a full-fledged national park in eastern Pennsylvania toward which the Fort Necessity tour guide claims to feel no landmark envy, even when pressed off the record), Fort Necessity impresses no one. According to its largely faithful re-creation on-site, the first Fortress America was a thrown-together combination of ditches surrounding logs stuck into the ground Cadillac Ranch-style around a small, functional building. It looks more like the kind of place asked to host a renaissance faire than the first important battle site of the New World. The tour is self-guided many days, and the ten-minute videotape introducing a history-ignorant public to the site is hardly of TNT mini-series quality. It is the kind of place where more than a few people attempt to avoid the two dollar usage fee, and Park Service employees do very little about it.

But the matter-of-fact nature of the place makes it all the more jarring and all the more credible as the site of America's real beginning. Not only does Fort Necessity serve as a reminder that small-scale events move historical mountains in a way the grandiose pomposity of more established sites — let alone the new breed of mutilation-fetish Hollywood movies — never will, but the French and British military costumes suggest that America owes its emergence in part to exigencies of international politics, particularly the decades-long bellybouncing between the two then-existing international superpowers. Every superpower should be reminded of how the bigger kids in the neighborhood used to beat them up. Every disconnected one of us should return to a humble place of national import and bask in the sheer absurdity of it all. God bless the quick-thinking, the land-hungry, the diligent and the lucky. God bless America.


courtesy of 40th Street Black

pictures by Terry Colon

40th Street Black