How Thomas Jefferson’s Ghost Taught Me a Lesson

When I was a child my family went on few trips, vacations—whatever you want to call then, going away to somewhere you haven’t been before.
A couple of times we went to the Arbuckle Mountains in south central Oklahoma. The main attraction there was Turner Falls and really cheap Indian souvenirs. Another time we spent a few days in Hot Springs, Ark. I found out at the same time I was visiting there, another eight-year-old boy lived there by the name of Bill Clinton. Wouldn’t it have been funny if I had seen him on the streets and didn’t know I was looking at a future president?
Most of the time my mother thought it was foolish and impractical to go anyplace where one of our relatives didn’t live. Her idea of fun was sitting in a cousin’s living room all afternoon trying to remember who the other cousins married and who among all the relatives would be first to die. Which brings me to the reason why I got to see Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. The father of my mother’s favorite cousin whom she visited regularly in Mineral Wells, Texas, died in Virginia. My mother and I joined her cousin in a cross-country car ride to attend the funeral in Charlottesville.
This cut the expenses considerably since the two women could take turns driving, and we didn’t have to sleep in a motel. They also packed lots and lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so we wouldn’t have to stop at any of those dirty cafes along the way.
Because I was good and didn’t squirm or whine during the two-hour funeral service, my mother granted me one request, as long as it didn’t take us too far out of our way or cost too much. I chose to visit the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. It was on the outskirts of town and charged a reasonable fee to explore the house and grounds.
One of my less admirable qualities as a little boy was that I tended to let something catch my eye, causing me to wander off without telling anyone where I was going. My defense was that how could I tell my mother where I was going when I didn’t know what it was I was going to look at before I got there.
On this particular occasion, I spotted the little graveyard in the distance which contained the remains of Thomas Jefferson himself. The tall granite obelisk looked huge to me, and I knew I had to go investigate it. When I arrived I realized a wrought-iron fence surrounded his tomb. On the monument was a metal plaque. I could read the first part very well.
“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence….”
I couldn’t quite make out the rest of it. If only I could get closer, I reasoned, I’d be able to read the entire inscription, memorize it and quote it to my entire class the next time we had a Show and Tell session. An idea came to me. The space between the iron bars of the fence were spaced wide enough that I could squeeze between them. I turned my shoulders vertically and eased my way through. Now I could read every word on the rest of the plaque.
“…Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia.”
Moving my lips, I repeated it several times, committing it to memory. Then I realized I must hurry back to the house before my mother blew her gasket because I wandered off again. Trying to pull out I realized I was stuck. It wasn’t that I was overly fat, but my mother did have to buy me blue jeans labeled “husky”.
I tried turning my shoulders vertical again to slip out of the fence but to no avail. At this point I began to panic, sniveling on the verge of outright bawling.
“Stop that whimpering, young man.”
At first I thought an attendant had wandered over and found me in this most unfortunate predicament. It was embarrassing but at least he could help get me out. I looked around, but I saw no one there.
“Now how on earth did you get yourself in this conundrum?”
My head went from side to side, and I tried to look behind myself without much success.
“Oh, in the name of Providence, look in front of you, lad.”
When I did focus my eyes straight ahead at the monument I could barely make out a grayish figure. This is when I considered I was having another one of my spectacular dreams. I would wake up in a few minutes and I’d be safe in bed way back in Gainesville, Texas.
“So why did you find it so imperative to squeeze your ample torso through these bars?”
“My mother told me never to talk to strangers.” This was a completely random statement to make but I was too scared to think of anything more intelligent.
“Poppycock,” the man, whom I now realized was transparent, “You must have studied about me in school. I’m Thomas Jefferson.”
“No lie?” Now why I chose this moment to question the integrity of a ghost standing in front of me I have no idea.
“You’re thinking of George Washington. He was the one who wasn’t supposed to lie but he did. He lied all the time. When you are tall you can get away with lying. I’m tall, and I was a very good liar. But that’s all right. You can’t run a government and not lie.”
At this moment I thought I was going to poop and/or pee in my pants or vomit. I did not know if projectile puke on a national landmark was grounds for a federal indictment or not. When nothing untoward in terms of inappropriate bodily discharge occurred, I decided to ask Mr. Jefferson for advice. After all, he must have been pretty smart to become President of the United States.
“Can you help me get out of here?” I asked in a whisper.
“No, I am not capable of releasing you. But even if I were I don’t think I would help you. You got yourself into this predicament so you have to get yourself out.”
“Can you give me a few hints?”
“I suppose you could keep trying to wriggle free. Twist your shoulders more. And for Heaven’s sake suck that gut in.”
I decided right then that I didn’t think Thomas Jefferson was a very nice man. But I continued to twist and contort my back and sucked in my stomach until my face was black and blue. Still no luck.
“Well, the only other thing I can recommend is for you to scream as loud as you can to get some help down here. Do you have family members here?”
“My mother.”
“Well, there you have it. I’m sure your mother will be able to find someone to extract you from the bars.”
“But that will be so embarrassing.”
“Oh, young man, you are beyond embarrassing. If something is not done soon, you could permanently harm your body in some way.”
“If this story gets out back home I’ll never live it down,” I stated in a sorrowful tone.
“Nonsense, no embarrassment lasts forever, and if you’re smart enough you can actually learn something.”
“Of course. Did you know I never joined the military during the revolution? And when a force of Redcoats marched on Monticello I jumped on my horse and raced away like a scared rabbit.”
“No, I never heard that story.”
“See,” Jefferson replied triumphantly. “History will take care of us if we are earnest in our motives. I would have been a lousy soldier but I could string words together pretty good and wrote encouragement for those who could fight.”
“JERRY DAN COWLING! Where the hell are you?”
“Oh God, it’s my mother!”
“I hope she’s on our side.” I sensed fear creeping into Jefferson’s voice.
“I’ll be right there!” I called out. With one enormous push I extricated myself with such force that I fell backwards on the ground.
“See what fear can do for you? Never be afraid of fear. Mmm, that sounds awkward. I better work on that one.”
Jumping up I began running back to the house. Over my shoulder I shouted, “Sorry to have inconvenienced you, Mr. Jefferson!”
“Oh, don’t you mind. This is the most fun I’ve had in a hundred years!”