ONE RECENT WEEKDAY evening I was racing down the Jones Falls Expressway with my eye on the clock and my 14-year-old son in the front seat of the car. The kid and I were running out of time and light. We had to get to a cemetery before sundown.
Why would anyone need to get to a cemetery before dark? If you guessed "last-minute school project," you must be a veteran parent. As a veteran, you know the basics of this drama.
Basic No. 1: Procrastination: Even though the assignment was made some time ago, the kid becomes concerned about it only as the deadline nears.
Basic No. 2: Missed opportunity. A few days earlier there had been an ideal time to leisurely complete the very task that we were now attempting at a breakneck pace.
Basic No. 3: Frustration. You, the parent, seem to care more about com- pleting this project than your kid does.
Compared to other school projects in our past -- sewing the flag of Mauritania, reconstructing Point Lookout with toothpicks -- this one was relatively easy and educational. The kid was supposed to visit a cemetery, read some old headstones, try to imagine what life had been like for the deceased. The kid was also supposed to soak in the atmosphere and note his feelings.
Like most parents of teen-agers, I applaud any attempt to get them to acknowledge the importance of their elders, even dead ones. Moreover, I approve of teen-agers visiting cemeteries, especially ancient ones. When the kids read headstones, they might accidentally learn some local history.
Baltimore has some terrific old cemeteries, such as Green Mount Cemetery at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street, where John Wilkes Booth is said to be buried in his family's plot, and Westminster Burying Grounds at Greene and Fayette streets, where Edgar Allan Poe was put to rest.
The ideal way to have undertaken this school project would have been to visit one of these cemeteries in the middle of the day and allow the sense of history to slowly sink in.
This studied approach was no longer possible for us because by the time we had activated our cemetery search -- after school, after football practice, as daylight faded -- the gates to these, and to most old urban cemeteries, were locked tight.
An opportunity to employ the slower approach had presented itself several days earlier when the kid had a day off from school. But instead of going to a cemetery to bask in the aura of Poe, the kid had used his day off to hit golf balls with several buddies. Golf is a newfound passion for the kid. School projects, it seems, are old hat.
As we headed down the expressway, the thought of this missed chance made me angry, made me grip the steering wheel a little tighter. Our destination was either a cemetery in Druid Hill Park or Poe's grave in Westminster Burying Grounds, both in Baltimore.
Last-minute cemetery visitors couldn't be choosers. We would have to connect emotionally with any burial ground that would let us in. We had to get there before sundown for two reasons. First, we couldn't read the headstones in the dark. Second, if you wander around a cemetery at night, there is, it seems to me, a possibility you could end up as one of its permanent residents.
We found two burial grounds in Druid Hill Park, a cemetery for St. Paul's Lutheran Church, which was locked up tight, and a cemetery for the Rogers and Buchanan families. In the 1700s and 1800s, these families lived on the land we now call Druid Hill Park. When the city of Baltimore bought the land in 1860, the family burial plot was left out of the purchase. I found this out by reading "The Very Quiet Baltimoreans," a guide to Baltimore's historic cemeteries, written by Jane B. Wilson and published in 1991 by White Mane Publishing Co of Shippensburg, Pa.
Earlier in the day when the kid was in school, I had skimmed this book, looking for likely spots the kid and I could hit before sundown. As I read about Baltimore's past I was struck with two thoughts. First, I was learning something. Second, I felt like I was doing more research on this project than my kid was. But as a veteran parent, I knew both feelings were commonplace.
We arrived at the family burial ground just as the sun was setting. The kid and I quickly recognized the spot. The burial ground sits on Greenspring Avenue, the road that runs past the Reptile House, a couple of baseball fields and the Frisbee golf course. My son and I had been in this section of park before to play baseball. We had passed the burial ground many times.
But until now we had not stopped to read the headstones.
An iron fence ringed the burial ground, but the fence was low enough to hop over. That wasn't necessary. We entered through one of several large gaps in the fence.
The burial ground had seen better days. A dead tree was sprawled across the grass. Sections of the lawn had been mowed, but tall, uncut grass ringed the dozen graves. The headstones were worn, and a few were cracked. But only one had been vandalized.
Pen and paper in hand, the kid trailed me around the grounds, recording names, dates and other data from the headstones. One headstone told the tale of Andrew Buchanan, who was an army lieutenant and a judge in Baltimore before dying in 1784 at the age of 33.
Despite the rundown aspects of the graveyard, the setting was impressive. Large pines billowed in the wind. Crows flew high overheard, their caws echoing in the distance. The western sky glowed with a crimson sunset.
This, I decided, was a pretty nice place. I could see myself being buried here. I said something to that effect to my kid, who, according to the instructions of his assignment, was supposed to be in a deep, meditative mood.
He was thinking, but it wasn't just about death or history.
"You know," he told me on the ride home. "My golf game is really getting better. I could come out to the park and practice."
I didn't say a word. I simply gripped the steering wheel a little tighter.
Later, when I read the kid's report, I was surprised that he acknowledged feeling "at peace" in the cemetery. And I was delighted he had chosen not to mention golf.