The following is a personal account of the first visit of the writer in 1965 to the McKinley National Memorial in Canton, Ohio
On Visiting the Monument (Installment 1):
My first visit to the McKinley National Memorial – a site that we as Massillonians had always just called, “the monument,” most likely came at the invitation of my first grade school- and Cub Scout-pal, Robert.
One fine June morning , just as our summer vacation was getting underway, Robert and his mother drove up in front of our house in their trusty blue Chevy. Mom and I were out directly and got situated in the car – moms in front, kids in back. A picnic lunch for four that mom had made the night before was folded neatly in waxed paper and packed in a basket with our drinks wrapped with equal care in aluminum foil so they’d stay cold, rested on the seat between Robert and me. The moms both wore white “cat’s eye” rimmed style sunglasses to protect their eyes from the glare of the mid-morning sun. Rob and I were men. We didn’t need no glasses.
Driving from Massillon to Canton, we covered the eight mile trip in mere minutes. As we rode the then familiar landmarks along Lincoln Way West and West Tuscarawas Street passed before us: Lambrou’s Chicken Chateau, Brady’s Pink Cottage Restaurant and Stark Drive-In; ahead on the left, the orange roofline of Howard Johnson’s, Milk Maid Candies, the Ohio Bell Telephone Terminal Center and The Sachsenheim Club, Stemco’s, The Red Coachman, the Town & Country Buffet and little F’n E Dairy. Construction was near finishing on the new St. Joan of Arc Church, then came Central Catholic High School, Kling Motors, The Dog House, McDonald’s Golden Arches, the Robert Hall Store and PDQ on the left, Laughlin Motors on the right; there’s Fishers and Country Fair Shopping Center. Across the street on the south side of the block, the new Mellet Mall was getting signage in place on the wall of the huge new Penny’s store soon to open and in a few more blocks there was Heggy’s Nut Shoppe. A little farther on the left, there’s Schrock’s Hobbies and the bell tower of St. Joseph’s Church, Shopper’s Fair on the right and finally, there ahead on the right, the golden dome of First Baptist Church and just beyond, venerable Mother Goose Land. We turned left off of West Tusc and entered the edge of the park but still at that point, the whole sweep of the monument itself was hidden from view.
We drove in heart-pounding silence up the right-hand side of the tree-lined boulevard where once, “The Long Water” formed the blade and tip of a figurative sword. Just a little further and there at last was the monument! First the motor court then the tiers of steps drew our eyes up to the bronze doors and the glistening white dome. Big as it was, you almost had to refocus to capture the bronze statue of the president standing centered at a point about half way between the first step and the top step. As I leaned over on Robert’s side of the seat to look out of the open window, the view took my breath away! His mom brought the car to a stop in a parking space as he and I stared out the back window. Before we left the car the moms, speaking almost in a whisper, reminded us that this was supposed to be a quiet and respectful place – like church. Once outside the car, I still wasn’t sure of myself and I held my mom’s hand. I remember being just caught up in the moment – dare I say, the majesty of the place – the glaring white granite, the brilliant blue of a cloudless late spring sky, the deep green of the grass and the leaves on the trees – and the silence; respectful, awesome and still. Everybody’s mom must have had that talk in the car that morning because except for maybe the click of a camera shutter or the occasional robin or cardinal trill, there was no sound. The American and Ohio state flags fluttered on their halyards but never scratched against the masts. Busy West Tusc was just a few blocks away but not a sound intruded on that setting. It seemed holy. Then a little voice from someone who, in their own excitement, forgot the whispered reminder from their mom in the car, turned and hollered merrily from the top-most step, “One hundred and eight!”
The steps had a bit of an irregular stride so it took a few to get our climbing rhythm but it was quickly mastered and we were on our way up and up, “44,45,46…” a quick look back down to reckon how high we’d climbed and get a closer look at the statue. “68,69,70…” gettin’ kinda sweaty; “106, 107, 108!” We first turned to look behind us as we were standing above the tops of the trees and could see clear into downtown Canton. The bell tower of St. Joseph’s on our right at about 2 o’clock; the fifth floor dome of Central Catholic much farther out at about 1 o’clock; directly ahead and to the left, the panorama of skyscrapers, church steeples, smoke stacks and signal towers that was the pulse of Stark County.
Now composed and reverent again, we turned to step inside.
Only one of the bronze doors was open and it was, it seemed, only open a crack but each of us entered with room to spare. In the cool, quite stillness, taking a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, I remember making the sign of the cross and looking for a holy water fount – so very church-like was the atmosphere. Gathered on the floor were several of the wreaths still on display from the Decoration Day program held just a few weeks before. And there at last lying side by side in a very tall granite vault were the two McKinley’s. Their daughters, the sign read, had been interred in the walls. Looking up into the arch of the dome I noticed that there were flood lights shining on the vault that wasn’t black as I’d thought but instead a deep green. This seemed an almost surreal spot, so cool and clean and quiet; right on the edge of a busy downtown but almost unaware of the hustle and bustle going on all around it. Time suspended itself for those several minutes we spent inside reading and imagining and taking history by the hand.
Michael J. Bachtel Guest Blogger