There’s nothing that says “experiencing history” to me like suffering. I thought about it at Gettysburg, standing in the oppressive heat and humidity for hours waiting for the Pickett’s Charge commemoration to start. I had been thankful that I was in the latest and greatest engineered summer fabric and not covered, head to toe, in a wool uniform. And that no one was trying to kill me, although the woman behind me wouldn’t have minded if I’d dropped dead so that she could have a clearer view. It was a tough crowd.
On Sunday, with temperatures in the high 90s and humidity that could drown you if you breathed in too deeply, I made the daft decision to tour the USS Constellation. The Constellation (the second naval ship of that name) was a sloop of war commissioned in 1855. Its most notable service was as the flagship for the U.S. African Squadron, when it captured 14 slave ships between 1859 and 1861, and returned almost 4000 would-be slaves to Africa. It’s now a museum ship anchored in Baltimore harbor.
As I wandered below deck, trailing sweat, I wondered what it was like for the sailors, 319 of them packed in like pre-teens at a Justin Bieber concert, doing hard physical labor. The only cool place on the entire ship was in the Captain’s cabin. There was a pleasant breeze coming through his window that, I swear, wasn’t present anywhere else on the ship. There were other rooms with windows next to his, and they didn’t have a breeze. Even topside, the air was still and close. I don’t know anything about naval architecture, but there’s just something weird about that.