I suppose you could say I was having a good day that bright midsummer day, the day I will not soon forget, for it certainly had not been a bad day. It was a beautiful day, nonetheless, with the sun well into its journey across the sky and a warm breeze blowing through my loose T-shirt. This is the time of year I love here in my hometown just to the north of Baltimore, when the Maryland breeze occasionally relieves you from the typically humid summer days.
I also love summer because every time that season rolls around I grow a year older. In fact, I had just turned seventeen a few weeks ago. That is when my dad had informed me of a change in my life. I still remember his words clearly. “Ethan,” he had said, “since you are a year older and now have your driver’s license, I have looked into finding you a job over the summer. Now don’t rush to conclusions,” he had quickly added when he saw my face cloud over, the blissful thoughts I had had of spending afternoon after afternoon with my friends vanishing. “It is time you started becoming a man. Besides, you might just come to like it.”
I had come to like it. As I stopped at a store on my way back from my summer job that day, I loved the feeling of having some extra cash in my pocket. Like any other teenager, I bought quite a few snacks with my money, but the snacks I buy are different. Instead of an energy drink and candy bar, my favorite snack was a bag of fresh cherries from the produce isle and a root beer. I suppose I am kind of strange in that regards. As I headed back to my car with cherries, root beer, and several groceries for my parents in tow, though, I figured that being different wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least in regards to my snack preferences.
I had just popped one of the cherries in my mouth when suddenly a bright light burst from the parking lot. The light was so bright that I fell to my knees and shielded my eyes, and how I kept from choking on the cherry in my mouth still puzzles me. A sound like air whistling through the smallest crack in a door surrounded me, and if I had not had to shield my eyes, I probably would have covered my ears against the piercing sound. I don’t know how long I kneeled there before the sound subsided and the light faded and died away, but needless to say, I was glad when it was over.
A deathly quiet seemed to fill the parking lot after this strange sensation, or maybe it just seemed that way after the ear-piecing sound. In any case, the slight breeze had ceased to blow, and the few persons in the parking lot were just as hushed and looked just as bewildered as I felt. I rose to my feet and quickly gathered my few groceries, thinking it best to leave the place as soon as possible. I figured that whatever that strange sensation was, it was not something to stick around for and hope it happened again. But as I approached my car, my life was changed forever. It was changed far more than any summer job. In fact, as I look back on it now, I think I was changed more in the next few hours than ever before since I was born.
It was as I approached my car that I saw them, the authors of the change in my life. Three men, all three of them oddly dressed, stood around my car. To say they were oddly dressed would be an understatement, though, for their clothes were very odd. Even in the heat, all three wore a buttoned up vest over their white, ruffled long-sleeved shirts. They all also wore straight brown breeches, and their white socks pushed out of their pilgrim-like shoes. Two of the men stood on either side of my car, watching me approach, but the other, who was by far the most rotund of the group, seemed to be trying to look at the undercarriage of my car. This third figure was bent over with his head under the bumper of my car, and as I drew near, I could hear him mumbling something to the effect of “Astonishing, simply astonishing.”
I thought about engaging these odd humans in a conversation but decided against it. Stomping past them, I opened the trunk of my car and deposited all but my root beer and bag of cherries into it. I then slammed the trunk back shut with a bang and walked towards the driver’s side door, hoping that the strangers would get the message and back off, especially the one with his head still under the front bumper of my car.
They didn’t. The man closest to me, who stood taller than me and whose face was slightly scared by chickenpox, shifted his position and tried to catch my eye before he said, “Good sir, please, I would have a word with you.” The man’s voice was level and controlled.
I turned towards the man for the first time and looked into his eyes. I was struck by the commanding features of the man, and also by how familiar he seemed. Whoever he was, it was clear that the man that levelly met my gaze was a born leader. “Yes?” The tone of my voice made it clear that I was not all that fond of obliging to his request.
“Sir, my three comrades and I seem to have been brought together by providence in this strange land. Why or how we are here, none of us can tell, but if you would be so kind as to give us an understanding of where we are, I am sure we would all be grateful.”
Are these men insane? I thought to myself, staring at the earnest face of the man. The man had looked and sounded sincere, but how in the world did he not know where he was? And why was he speaking so funny? “Um,” I said out loud, “you are in a parking lot in a small town just outside of Baltimore, and are in the state of Maryland in the United States.” As I said this, I opened the driver’s door of my car and threw my soda and cherries onto the middle seat.
Suddenly the face of the man in front of me looked as startled and confused as mine must have looked. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came, and he stood with mouth agape. The man on the other side of the car, whose fine face showed just as much surprise as his comrade, took a step closer to me, and the third man jerked his head up so quickly that he banged it against the bumper of my car.
“America?” the second figure said, his light colored eyes staring intently back into my own. “We are in America? But that can’t be possible. These strange wagons, everything . . .” the man’s voice trailed off, and his eyes broke away from mine as he looked around him.
In reply, I threw my hands into the air and sat down inside my car, fully prepared to leave the supposed escapees from the insane asylum in the dust. I inserted the key to my car into the keyhole, but before I could slam my door shut, the first man regained his composure enough to grab the door and keep it from closing.
“Please wait, lad, please.” The man pried the door open and kneeled down so that we were at eye level again. “You said that we are in Maryland, near the town of Baltimore, and though I hardly find that possible, you do not seem to be lying. Please, we would like to get back to Philadelphia, where I hold the title of president over these United States and where my two friends live. Could you guide us to a place where we could attain a sufficient carriage like your own?”
“Oh, are you sure you don’t want to go to Washington D.C.? Being the president, don’t you want to go to where the leadership of our country resides?” I asked, unable to keep from mocking. “And as far as buying yourself a ‘carriage’, there is not a car dealership within twenty miles of here.”
Again the supposed “president” looked bewildered, mixed only with a crestfallen look. “Washington D.C? If you mean the land near the Potomac, it is hardly developed.” An earnest look again reasserted itself on the man’s face, and he continued, “Sir, I do not mean to presume on your kindness, but one of my friends is in no condition to walk twenty miles. If you are inclined, could you perhaps bear us in your carriage, at least for a time?”
“Well, I am not ‘inclined’. I don’t even know your names, let alone why in the blazes you are here without a car,” I said quickly. The thought of transporting these lunatics anywhere strongly disagreed with me.
“I am sorry, sir,” the second, fine-faced man said, coming around my car so that he faced me. “Perhaps my comrade presumed that you would know him as most everybody in America does, well, at least in our age. He is our president, George Washington, I am Benjamin Rush, and this third gentleman is—“
“Benjamin Franklin,” I finished for him, looking into the face of the rather pudgy man, the exact likeness of the face on the Quaker Oat’s box, who had finally straightened up while still holding his head. “Your costumes are praiseworthy, but your masks must be getting uncomfortable. Why not peel them off?”
I again made to close my door, but “Washington’s” fingers still kept it ajar. “I don’t know what we have done to receive your prejudice,” he said quietly, but still evenly, to me. “Indeed, you are behaving yourself as someone below your age. But I am not in a position to criticize you. For pity’s sake, could you not bear us to either Philadelphia or the District of Columbia, or at least to a place where we could ascertain a carriage? You will be well paid.” With these last words, he pulled a wad of odd looking paper from his vest but then quickly returned them to his pocket. “No, I will not waste your time by offering you Continentals. They are increasingly worthless in our day, and I doubt not that they have ceased to be used in your age. Perhaps the Spanish dollar still retains value in your society? I am sure that between me and my fellows, we could offer you a sufficient amount of the coin.”
I shook my head. “I have to get back home. I’m sorry.” I suppose that was partly a lie on both counts, for I did not really have to get home and neither was I all that sorry.
George Washington stepped back, resign showing in his face, but then Benjamin Franklin’s double spoke for the first time, “Sir, or would you rather be called lad, we seem to be in a proverbial stalemate. You would like to get back to your hovel, or whatever you call them now, and we also would like to get back to our home city. You seem to be ill inclined to us, but we require the service of your cart and will pay you well. As I once said, ‘When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition*’.”
Benjamin paused as if to let his words sink in. “Perhaps it is time for us to make a compromise, lad,” he continued at last. “By virtue of example, let’s say that instead of you journeying with us all the way to Philadelphia, you just take us to a place where we can buy a horseless carriage. It is horseless, isn’t it?” Benjamin asked, his eyes gleaming now as he peered over the rims of his glasses.
Yes, it is horseless,” I said, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. Whoever the members of this strange group claimed to be, I had resolved to try and not look too juvenile to them, especially under the level gaze of George Washington’s imposter. “And I don’t think a compromise can be made. Goodbye.”
I finally managed to close my car door and turned the key. My engine coughed to life. Though I was very proud of my first car, it was the definition of a “beater”. Putting it in drive, I began to roll away from the group.
I will never know why I looked back, but that is what I did. Perhaps I really did believe, or really wanted to believe, that the strangers were who they claimed to be. Maybe it was something else, something like the “providence” George Washington had mentioned earlier. My eyes met with those of George Washington’s, and I couldn’t hold his gaze. I looked at Benjamin Rush, who stood by Benjamin Franklin and seemed to be looking the round man over carefully. Mr. Franklin himself looked to be the least forlorn of the group, his gray eyes searching intently over my car still.
My foot rested over the brake pedal, then pushed against it, and I realized that the last thing I wanted to do was leave these three men behind. At least not yet, I thought. Give them a chance.
I rolled down my window, and this time I could hold Washington’s gaze. “Well,” I called out, “maybe I could get you as far as a car dealership.”
A smile slowly spread over our first president’s commanding face, and he bowed. “Thank you, sir, we are greatly indebted to you.”
The three approached, and Benjamin Franklin said cheerfully, “Thank you for obliging, lad. It is about time I set off on another adventure. I am ready to embark on this new quest.”
“You will do no such thing,” Benjamin Rush retorted. “You are an old gentleman—no, a very old gentleman—suffering from multiple health disorders. I will not allow you to do anything more than what is necessary to get you back to your abode.”
“Nonsense, good doctor,” Franklin replied, “I feel reinvigorated, like eating a bowl of warm stew after coming in from the cold. I don’t know what it is, but I feel younger. Maybe the time travel we all just went through has rewound my clock a little bit in the process. Whatever the case, I feel to be back in my sixties at least, and I do not doubt I could go skipping about the countryside again as I did in my youth.”
“Oh, I can assure you that you will not be doing any skipping,” Dr. Rush said dryly, taking the smiling old man by the arm and leading him to the door of my car.
Each of the men managed to open the door of my car and seated themselves in it. George Washington, or at least his imitator, sat beside me in the front passenger’s seat while his two comrades headed for the back seats. The more rotund of the two Benjamins sat directly behind the president, and Dr. Rush sat behind me.
As I let my car start moving again, I called out, “Seatbelts, everyone.” The blank looks of the three men was all I received for an answer, so I again stopped the car to show them how to fasten the safety devices. After three clicks told me that each of the men was belted in, I finally was able to successfully leave the parking lot.
“I will take you to where I bought my ‘carriage’,” I informed. “It is a fairly decent used-car dealership in the suburbs of Baltimore.”
The president beside me, who seemed to naturally assume the leadership of the strange group, thanked me, and an awkward silence filled the car, broken only by a clicking sound. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and saw that Benjamin Franklin was bent over his seatbelt buckle. He occasionally un-buckled the seatbelt and then, after carefully studying the medal end of the belt, re-buckled it, only to repeat the process intently again. I rolled my eyes and turned them back to the road.
Finally the man next to me broke the silence. “I don’t think we ever gained the knowledge of your name, sir,” he said.
“I’m Ethan,” I returned simply, not looking away from the road before me.
“Ethan,” George repeated slowly, “that is a good name, like the name of a great soldier I knew.”
I shrugged, and our brief conversation ended. Benjamin Franklin, however, seemed to be roused from his study of the seatbelt at this short interchange and leaned forward. “Ethan, I would like to receive an understanding of how your marvelous horseless carriage works. Are you willing to answer a few questions?”
I should have known better from the knowing glance the doctor and president exchanged than to agree to this request, but I didn’t. I nodded, and that was all the confirmation the rotund founding father needed. A rapid stream of questions poured from his mouth, and I was hard pressed to answer the sheer number of them all and the complexity contained in them.
I finally tried to fend off this nearly vicious stream of questions. “I need to call my dad and tell him why I will be a little late for dinner,” I said, grasping at anything to change the subject.
Benjamin Franklin stopped mid-question, and Benjamin Rush glanced up from a book that had somehow come through the time travel with him. It was entitled A New Method of Chemistry, including the Theory and Practice of the Art **. The three of them watched as I got out my cell phone and dialed my dad.
The cell phone rang three times, and then the familiar voice of my dad came through. “Hello, Ethan?”
“Hi, Dad. I just wanted to let you know that I might not be able to make it for dinner. I am running an errand for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Rush.”
There was a long pause on the other end. “What in the world are you talking about, son? Are George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Rush the nicknames of your friends or something?”
“Nope,” I replied. “They claim to be and look like the real deals, Benjamin Franklin especially.”
“Ethan, have you lost your mind?”
“I sure hope not.” I was surprised at the unsteadiness in my voice when I said this.
My father said something else to me, but I don’t remember what that something was, only remembering the rather distressed tone in his voice. My mind was suddenly far away from the voice coming from my cell phone. “Goodbye, Dad,” and I clicked my phone off. It rang again within seconds, but I turned it off.
Was I going crazy? The thought had never occurred to me. Maybe I was the one who had lost my marbles. I shook this thought off. For now, all I knew was that I was in the company of three men who had been dead for two centuries, three men who were titans in my country’s early history. That in itself was enough to think about. If I had known how much my life would be changed in the next few hours, though, I believe I would have been overwhelmed in that moment.
* Cited from James Madison’s Journal of the Constitutional Convention.
** A book authored by Herman Boerhaave, a Dutch physician that Benjamin Rush studied. It was translated into English by Peter Shaw, an English physician.
** A book authored by Herman Boerhaave, a Dutch physician that Benjamin Rush studied. It was translated into English by Peter Shaw, an English physician.