Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thursday Evening in Morningside Heights: The National Parks Service presents "Night at the Tomb" at General Grant National Memorial (Grant's Tomb)

"Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"

On You Bet Your Life, which we grew up watching, Groucho Marx would accept "no one" "Grant", "Mrs. Grant" and all varieties of the above, as correct answers to the easier-than-Eazy-E-question.

Tonight, in a special after-hours event of National Park Week, we got to spend a "Night in the Tomb" in the mausoleum that we'd only previously gone into during its 9-to-5 daytime hours.

And we got a really comprehensive and fascinating talk by a National Park Service ranger who gave an excellent account of General Grant's life and how the monument came to be.

We always had the impression that Grant's Tomb was once a must-see tourist draw for New York, back in the day when people had fresher memories of the Civil War, whose start was now exactly 150 years ago, and the presidency of Ulysses G. Grant from 1869 to 1877. By the time we were kids in the 1950s, we knew it mostly from the famous riddle.

But from 1985 to 1990, when we took graduate classes at Teachers College, which we passed tonight (getting 33 credits towards an unfinished master's degree in computing and education over two fall and five summer terms),

we used to walk over to Grant's Tomb on our way to or from the M-5 bus stop on Riverside Drive. It was a good place to sit outside and think about the world, especially being able to look at Riverside Church across the street.

Sometimes we'd go into the monument and just look down at the great granite sarcophagi of the Grants.

But we never went on a tour before tonight, and we're grateful to the National Park Service for the special opening.

The ranger painted an interesting portrait of a man who was a reluctant soldier and politician and who often did his duty despite qualms (he fiercely opposed the Mexican War yet won medals for his service in it and developed supply methods that served the Union well during the Civil War). He drank a lot, really a lot, but the ranger said Grant wasn't an alcoholic.

Grant was buried here because he lived nearby in Manhattan, as did Mrs. Grant, who survived him by decades. What always impressed us about Grant was that he was actually quite a good writer; his memoirs still make good reading.

What we did notice is that all the exhibits were gone. We learned that they're in storage, going to be moved to a new visitors' center across Riverside Drive.

Next Wednesday will be Ulysses S. Grant's 189th birthday, and it will be celebrated with a daylong event featuring speakers, costumed Civil War re-enactors, demonstrations of black gunpowder being fired by weapons of the era, as well as a 21-gun salute to our eighteenth President.

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