Tonawanda News — I daresay it’s one of those Western New York spots — like Fort Niagara and the Buffalo Zoo — that every children reared in the 716 area code has visited for at least one school field trip.
Until recently, my most vivid memory of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park was a fifth-grade trip. Bored with the usual group of girls, I tagged along after a group of the boys for one last look at one ship where we hadn’t spent much time. I don’t remember which one ... this was 28 years ago.
And being 10- or 11-year-old boys, they thought it would be hysterical to try to lose me on the ship.
And they did.
To this day, I can picture what it was like to wander the corridors by myself, hearing nothing but echoes, wondering if my class would leave without me. The halls seemed to stretch on forever, and I was positive I’d been on there for hours. In reality, it had probably been minutes. When I emerged, the teachers hadn’t even realized I was missing.
But enough about my childhood trauma. In all those years since, I’ve paid precisely one visit to the park, getting an avid history lesson from my World-War-II-buff husband that I retained more for its enthusiasm than its content. But when the opportunity arose for our family to become members this past summer, I jumped at the chance.
Sam in particular is at the age where he becomes fascinated with nearly everything to which he’s introduced, from the frivolous — video games— to the serious — history and science in particular. I bought the Naval Park family membership Groupon with images of father-son bonding in my head, and an interest in Naval history being passed down to yet another generation.
And that’s pretty much what happened. I’m going to confess here that I was on the outskirts for most of this, instead hanging out with Jim, who is himself far more fascinated with the water than the ships, and watching the duo of husband and second son communing with each other from afar. And that’s OK.
The exhibits and other equipment will wait until Sam’s a little older. For now, the focus was on the ships, the USS The Sullivans, USS Little Rock and USS Croaker.
Maybe predictably, it was the biggest and the littlest things he noticed. The big: The ships themselves, and how measurably awesome it was to a 5-year-old to step foot on them. The little: Every tiny everyday detail adult eyes can so easily gloss over.
He loved the beds, all lined up, and how he could sit far off the ground on the highest one. Note to self: Look into bunk beds one of these days.
He liked the galley, and how the officers’ mess had booths “like a restaurant!” He liked the anchors and the searchlight. “It’s a big flashlight!” He liked one ship’s small exhibit area with models of many of its kind, and the detailed map on the Little Rock. He liked the engine room. “This is what makes the ship go, daddy.”
”He was asking what everything was,” my husband, Eric, said. “He was just like a llittle sponge, he was absorbing everything. And the next time we were back and after that, he remembered it all.”
With four visits so far under his belt, Sam now leads us around the park like a small tour guide. While he first remembered the USS The Sullivans because “it’s the guy in ‘Monsters Inc.!” now he understands that it’s named after five brothers, although he doesn’t know what ultimately happened to them. One thing at a time.
And while his fascination with the ships and their history builds, we haven’t really touched on the broader history, not yet. There are places I don’t want that innocent 5-year-old mind to go just yet.
During one visit, he was thrilled to be sitting up in one of the anti-aircraft towers and, of course, wanted to know what it was for. His father explained that it was for shooting planes that were attacking the ship.
”Daddy! Planes don’t attack boats! Planes take you to Disney World!”
Sometimes it’s sad, if nostalgic, looking through their eyes.
Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JillKeppeler.IF YOU GO • WHAT: Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park • WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in October, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and the Friday after Thanksgiving in November, closed December through March. • WHERE: At the foot of Pearl and Main streets, near Canalside, across from First Niagara Center, Buffalo. • COST: $10 for those 17 and older, $6 for children 6 to 16 and seniors 60 and older • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit buffalonavalpark.org.