At a food stand by the Mayflower II, a big man with a big voice sat eating ice-cream with what looked like his wife and their grown children. He stood and fed the rest to a St. Bernard passing by, and resumed his conversation like nothing happened.
By the shops up the hill, a long-haired white guy drove a 1970s convertible with a carseat in the backseat, blaring Spanish music.
An old man sat with his shirt off on a rock by the beach, facing not the ocean but some clouds in the distance. "It's gonna rain," he said. "So you get out now. Enjoy the day. Go home and let it rain."
That was his plan, at least. After 40 days and 40 nights of rain in New England (approximately) he wasn't about to let a sunny --or even hazy--morning get away from him.
This is Plymouth, Mass., in 2006.
The rock is down by the ocean, enclosed behind an iron fence. As J.J. and I stared at it (The boys had run ahead with Justin before I could lecture them about what the rock symbolizes for our country,) some kids in black T-shirts jumped off their skateboards.
"Oh, look a fake rock!" said the tallest to his friends, for our benefit. "How did they get that fake rock down there? That is so sick."
And they wheeled off, snickering.
Well, you can't really blame him for being a smart aleck. You have to be hard to survive the mean streets of Ye Olde Plimoth, where swans bathe themselves in the confluence of the brook and sea. But I'm pretty sure it was a real rock. Whether it was the rock the pilgrims first stepped on when they reached America, no one knows. According to the sign, that is what a Puritan leader claimed to have learned from the older generation, who arrived on the Mayflower. Through the years, the rock has been moved, broken and chipped away by people wanting relics. And yet there it stands, surrounded by corroded coins.
When you tell people you went to Plymouth Rock, they ask, "Were you disappointed?"
It is, after all, just a rock.
You are not, by the way, supposed to throw coins down there, I learned when I chucked a dime into the pit. Wishes are free at Plymouth Rock, the lady said. Tell that to the Pilgrims.
Almost 400 years ago, 128 people crowded onto this ship, which would comfortably seat eight.
On the Mayflower II, a remake of the original ship, we learned about life during that two-month journey from a couple characters pretending to have made the trip.
"I know not of a New Jersey," one man told an English tourist trying to determine the Mayflower's original destination. "I know of Jersey. Thot's in England. Aye."
"Do you know that you weren't really on the Mayflower?" the man looked like he wanted to ask. "Aye. You're an actor."
The woman, who wore a cloth on her head and a long dress was very believable. She said, "I felt very sorry for the children. There were 2 and 50 with us on this boat. And they couldn't play because there was no room. Everywhere you walked there were beds. And they were so sick. At night it was dark and they would miss the pots and be sick on their clothes and you'd wash it with a little seawater. The smells were so bad. The only thing that got me through was my faith. And my husband."
So you can see why a rock would would be an exciting sight for these people. Even a fake one.
Also, having ridden in a car for 12 hours several times with five people, I can see why the Puritans had a lot of strict rules after riding in a boat with 128 people. My family used to drive to Colorado every summer. If I'd been asked to write some laws when we finally got out of the car, they would have included, "No loud chewing of food. No sunlight beating down on you relentlessly. No humidity. No cars without air conditioning. No accidentally touching someone else's knee with your knee. No talking annoyingly (I'll be the judge of that.) No laughing. No Van Halen playing too loudly on your headphones, drowning out the John Denver and Anne Murray songs I'm trying to listen to. Etc. Etc.
William Brewster, my ancestor, came over on the Mayflower and signed the famous compact. In fact, Brewster Gardens is built on the site of his garden A plaque said he was well-respected and well-spoken. We'd always heard he was a thief and a miscreant. Maybe he was a little of both. I wished the plaque gave more specifics. For instance: "His breath reeked of herring, yet his words were sweet." or "He robbed from the rich but was such an eloquent speaker that he convinced everyone that he was justified in doing so." Well, I didn't get a chance to read the whole thing, because it turned out I was in the background of the wedding photo, bent over, squinting at the plaque, which was written in old-timey language.
But whatever he was like, and whatever his wife and kids were like, this much I know. He survived one terrible journey and helped write the Mayflower Compact. That Plymouth rocks!