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Colonial Williamsburg and a Free Game - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 9, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Colonial Williamsburg and a Free Game

A writers conference in Newport News, Virginia, gave me an excuse to take my family to Williamsburg.

It's a popular tourist site, but for me it's also part of my childhood. When I was eight or so, my mother urged me to read some historical novels that she dearly loved -- Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series.

I fell in love with the first volume, Dawn's Early Light, the story of Julian Day, a young schoolmaster who in 1774 finds himself in Williamsburg quite by accident, because his father died at sea and left him without visible means of support. He first teaches, then protects, and finally falls in love with a young girl who was born into poverty and abuse, but whose mind deserved a more interesting and fulfilling life than seemed possible for her.

The story is complicated -- and enriched -- by taking place in the midst of a revolution which was at least partly conceived in the capitol and the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, where Day meets many of the great figures in the formation of the American republic.

It was a moving, evocative story, and as I have begun rereading it just today, I still find it very well written.

Because of Dawn's Early Light and its successors, Yankee Stranger and Ever After (there are further books set in England, but they were more nearly contemporary novels for Ms. Thane as she wrote them, and I found them a bit less involving), I have felt a strong affinity for Williamsburg ever since.

Which is exactly what Thane had in mind. She wrote them partly to promote the Williamsburg restoration movement, which was just getting started at the time of her writing. Williamsburg had been the capitol of Virginia until, during the Revolutionary War, the capital was moved farther up the river to Richmond. It never came back. The result was that while Williamsburg remained a thriving town, it was a sleepy backwater rather than the center of the political and cultural life of the state.

Thus it was Richmond, not Williamsburg, that became the capital of the Confederacy; Richmond that was shelled and partly burned; Richmond that has been rebuilt and developed and modernized over the years. Because of its relative unimportance, Williamsburg was left largely intact, so that when the project of restoration began (with the help of major donors (including Rockefeller money), there were plenty of historic old buildings still standing, and even if they had to be rebuilt to be usable, and many others had to be restored from the ground up, the result was a marvelous evocation of a lost age.

Colonial Williamsburg today is a place where you can park your car, board a bus, and then step off into the streets of a city that, except perhaps for the asphalt, is much as it was in 1776 or earlier.

If you stay at the Woodland Inn and Suites (one of the hotels owned by the Colonial Williamsburg foundation), you can walk over a footbridge into the old town. On the footbridge are plaques showing how the world is changing as you move backward in time: Once you pass 1954, you live in a racially segregated Virginia; when you pass 1865, it's a world in which you certainly know people who own other people. You step into a world without income tax -- but without Social Security. A world without cars, a world where almost all the food you eat is grown within a day's walk of where you live.

In the city, the guides and docents wear costumes of the period. When I first visited Williamsburg back in 1976, there were fewer crowds and more time to stand and chat with or listen to the docents as they explained the crafts they were carrying out. You could still wander the Capitol without a guide. Something has been lost in the intervening years -- at least for people like me who can't stand being trapped in a group to be herded from room to room -- but the attractions are all there and more have been added.

No roller coasters -- for that you can go to Busch Gardens -- but instead you get the look and feel of the way our forebears lived. Even if your ancestors lived on another continent until quite recently, as soon as they, or you, became American, the people of Williamsburg became your forebears, since it was they as much as anyone who created the ideas that became America; for this is a nation founded not upon ethnic identity but on ideals and principles.

There are plays and reenactments; there are also shops selling semi-authentic artifacts, and nicely modern bottles of water and soda pop. And because they limit the number of tickets they sell for any particular day, it can be crowded but never oppressively so.

The city of Williamsburg itself, outside the boundaries of Colonial Williamsburg, is still an active, thriving town (though with extraordinarily high real estate prices for a "sleepy backwater"). William and Mary College is still a center of higher education, and modern and ancient traditions (by American standards, anyway) meet pleasantly in a Market Square where the college bookstore is run by Barnes and Noble and the Cheese Shop sells imported Italian specialty pastas.

Nearby, Yorktown and Jamestown offer fascinating glimpses of vital events in American history. Yorktown is the site of the siege and battle that brought the American Revolution to a successful close. (It took a couple more years to sign the treaty, but serious hostilities were ended by mutual agreement following the surrender of Cornwallis's army to Washington's at Yorktown.)

And at Jamestown, they are already celebrating the quadricentennial of the founding of the first English colony in North America back in 1607. There are actually two locations: "Jamestown Settlement" and "Historic Jamestown." Jamestown Settlement is by far the more entertaining, with realistic-enough reconstructions of the original fort, Indian villages, and the three original ships that you can explore.

But for those who prefer reality, it's Historic Jamestown that's on the original site. Here's where archaeologists are at work, where you'll see the foundations of real buildings, and where the sections of stockade resemble the palisade as it would really have looked -- logs, not boards, and fastened together without nails.

Jamestown -- or James City, as it became for a while -- was the capital of Virginia until 1699. The stockade was important at the beginning, but there were many other buildings in a thriving colonial capital, until the government was moved to Williamsburg, whereupon Jamestown was soon abandoned and its location eventually forgotten.

On both sites they have done a remarkable job of recreating the look and feel of aspects of the original settlement -- fortunately leaving out the diseases that decimated the first waves of colonists.

It can be expensive to stay at the hotels right next to Colonial Williamsburg, but then, you only need to stay there a night or two to see everything. Or you can stay offsite at a cheaper place and park your car at a nearby lot.

However you get there and wherever you stay, Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown are still the best presentation of American history on an original site.


My wife's brother came to visit the other day (he lives in Hawaii, but every now and then he has to come to the mainland and see how those of us who don't live in paradise are getting along). He brought with him a delightful game, which doesn't require any equipment other than pieces of paper and pens or pencils.

It's a game rather related to two games I played while growing up. A family favorite when I was very young was "The Drawing Game." My mother and I were the only two members of the family utterly devoid of talent at visual arts, and we gamely played along -- indeed, I loved the game even though my drawings were awful.

The Drawing Game is played by passing papers to everyone around a table. One person is designated the "artist." The artist announces, "We're going to draw a car. Start with the wheels." Everybody draws wheels. If you're me or my mom, you draw two circles with a hubcap (or, if you're feeling perverse, the spokes of a wagon wheel); if you're my brother Bill or my sister Janice, you draw a delightful cartoon of two flat tires, or tires studded with nails, etc.

Then you pass your paper to the person next to you and draw the next assignment ("Now we'll draw the outline of the body of the car") on someone else's wheels.

"Now you draw the doors and windows." "Now you draw the people inside." "Now you draw the road." "Now you draw the scenery."

And when it's done, the last person writes the caption or title and then each one is shown to the table at large.

I was already a teenager when someone -- I believe it was a visiting cousin -- taught us another pass-the-papers game called, simply, "The Poetry Game." Here it's all language -- which meant I actually had a chance. Once again, everyone gets a paper; this time, though, no one is in charge.

On the blank sheet, each person writes a single line that is intended to be the first line of a poem. Then everyone passes their papers to the next person, who writes one line that rhymes with the line written by the previous person, and then folds the paper over backward so the first couplet is hidden.

Then you write a new line that continues the poem, but does not rhyme, and you pass the paper on.

The next person then writes a line that rhymes with the one line they can see -- the last one you wrote -- then folds the paper back and writes a new line. And so on, until somebody's paper is full.

Then, of course, you take turns dramatically reading the wretched but hilarious poetry that resulted. (By then the papers are so folded they look like crumpled papyrus scrolls when you unfold them.)

I loved these games, though I admit that the Poetry Game is much more fun when played with people who understand poetic scansion, which used to be "everybody" but now, with the collapse of the teaching of rhythmic verse in the schools, is "practically nobody under forty."

What my brother-in-law brought us was a pass-the-papers game that combines both those older games into one that requires less talent but does not reduce the fun.

Everyone gets, not one, but as many sheets of paper as there are players in the game -- or more. Nine or eleven are good numbers. Each player is designated by a letter of the alphabet: A, B, C, etc. On the top sheet of paper, but no other, the players write their letter, plus the number 1. That player will never write that letter again (unless you have fewer players than you have papers).

I put that in italics so that you would notice it. You only write your letter once.

On that first page, you write a sentence. Any sentence at all. Once you've played the game, however, you'll have a very good idea of what makes for an entertaining (i.e., cruel-to-the-next-guy) sentence. Then you pass the paper to the left.

Which means someone has just passed a paper to you. You will not write anything on that paper. Instead, you look at the letter written at the top of the paper you just received, and you write that letter on a blank sheet, followed by the next number in sequence.

Thus, if you received a paper headed "F-1," with a sentence under it, you will write "F-2" on the top of a blank sheet. Only you won't write anything. Instead, you will draw a picture illustrating that sentence as best you can.

It's not quite Pictionary -- you want to create, not a rebus, but an actual illustration. But it doesn't really matter if you're a good artist -- stick figures will do. The idea is to try to communicate, without words, what that previous paper said.

Then you pass the "F-2" drawing you just created to your left, and put the "F-1" paper with a caption on it in a face-down pile in front of you. That way the next person won't be tempted to cheat and look at the sentence that would explain your illustration.

You now receive an illustration paper labeled "E-2" from the player on your right. You'll write "E-3" on top of a blank sheet, and then write a sentence which, as nearly as you can figure it out, explains the "E-2" illustration you received.

You are not allowed to ask any questions, though you can groan and whine to your heart's content. Somehow, you come up with a caption that makes some kind of sense out of the illustration. Then you place the illustration face-down in the pile in front of you and pass your "E-3" caption to the left.

Now you receive a "D-3" paper with a caption on it, and you'll create a "D-4" drawing to illustrate it, and so on, until you run out of paper. If everyone started with an odd number of papers, that final paper will be a caption.

Then you pass the paper one more time. Let's say you end up with the letter you started with, "G." You will call out your letter and, in the general melee that ensues, other people will toss all the "G" papers to you. You will arrange them in order, and then create a virtual Power-Point presentation of the captions and illustrations in order.

I promise you, the results will be hilarious, partly because of the ineptitude-amid-cleverness of the drawings, and partly because of misunderstanding combined with wittiness in the captioning.

Now I am ready to tell you the name of the game, because now it will be obvious to you that it was a particularly hilarious final caption in a game session in the distant past: "Eat Poo, You Cat."

But you can change the name if you want. Indeed, your very first game will probably result in at least one caption that you will want to enshrine in a new name for the game.

This game probably needs at least four and probably five or more players to be fun; and if you have more than eleven players, you should probably not have more papers than that -- it's ok if not everybody contributes to every letter-thread.

It's also a good idea to cut standard 8.5" x 11" paper in half across the middle, so the drawings aren't so time consuming as player try to fill a large paper. Anything much smaller than 5.5" x 8.5" is probably too small.

There's your prize for reading this column today: You now have a delightful party game, absolutely free of charge, which requires no particular talent or knowledge, and will delight every player who isn't so completely self-obsessed ("I hate this! I can't draw!") that it's no fun playing any game with him.

But if you have a player who cannot follow directions -- who writes his own letter on every single paper -- then you will have a disaster, since you can end up with a pile of papers in which most of them are labeled (for instance) "G." So please make sure that everyone understands the rules very, very clearly, and that you remind them frequently to write on each new sheet the letter of the paper they just received.


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