Photoshopping Fort McHenry


Like most Baltimoreans, I had never voyaged through the murky bay water in the harbor, hadn’t even scudded atop it with a purple dragon pedal boat in that tiny penned in portion. But, also like most Baltimoreans, when my Out Of Town Relatives came for a visit, I was coerced into experiencing the wonders of my city.

My Out Of Town Relatives, we’ll call them OOTRs, are from the upper left corner of Missouri, practically the bulls-eye on a map of the United States. Thus, their middle-of-nowhere and large-body-of-water-less lifestyle evoked the consummate excitement on our trip to “The Greatest City in America,” complete with tall buildings, a large body of water, and an abundance of big city entertainment.

They were nearing the end of their trip so their vacation money gas tank was needling dangerously close to empty. Thinking that the shiny water and street performers would be enough to dazzle the OOTRs, the trip was entirely impromptu. I should have known this would be a mistake.

We stood in a circle, breathing in the sticky air and scratching our mosquito bites for 5 minutes or 5 hours, while I frantically tried to figure out what we could do for the rest of the night without much money.

I tried pointing out the features of the harbor I thought they’d be marveled by.

Photo: Katy Day
Photo: Katy Day

“Look at all of this water! How many bath tubs do you think it’d take to fill this baby up?” I said, willing a soda can to float out of view.

“It’s really dirty,” someone said. They weren’t impressed.

We walked along the water awhile, my younger cousins stared longingly at the pedal boats (way out of our price range) as we passed, watched a guy ride on a unicycle while juggling fire (twice), and mingled around the outside of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, unwilling to pay to see what awaited behind the giant steaming dragon outside. The two trunked elephant that we could see from the street was enough of a giveaway.

After passing Rita’s and Eleven-Year-Old-Cousin muttering “Mmm, ice cream,” to himself, but for everyone to hear, we finally reached a sign that said:

“Boat tour of the harbor $15,” and an even more exciting, “children 3 and under free.” We had struck gold.

We all piled on, most of the OOTR’s went above deck to extract the maximum amount of fun from the tour. I went into the cabin in an attempt to prevent my rowdy one-year-old and three-year-old from falling overboard. Step Mother and Eleven-Year-Old Cousin, who is way more polite than any eleven-year-old boy that went to my middle school, joined me. We were the only ones in the cabin.

Our pre-recorded tour guide piped to life and I perked to attention. If I was already there, I might as well learn a little bit about my city. I was determined to learn more about Baltimore, the city I had grown up living a mere 20 minutes from, than my Missourian OOTRs.

We passed the immigration center and the Domino Sugar Refinery. I took one look at the sugar refinery, hovering dangerously close to the dingy bay water, and second-guessed every tasty cake I had ever eaten. OOTRs thought this was fascinating, probably because they were comforted by the fact that their sugar most likely came safely from a factory closer to home.

Then our tour guide announced that we were approaching Fort McHenry. Now, deep down in some obscure part of my brain, I knew that Francis Scott Key was inspirited to write the Star Spangled Banner near the very spot we were floating, but why hadn’t Mrs. Moore made a bigger deal about that when she told me in second grade?

Photo: sneakerdog via Flickr
Photo: sneakerdog via Flickr

I was titillated by the fact that the Francis Scott Key wrote our Nation’s anthem based off of the view in front of me. I wondered how much the view had changed in the last 200 years, when it was written in 1814. It wasn’t hard to mentally photoshop the picture.

While most of Baltimore has been transformed by towering condominiums, hotels, stadiums and other modern baggage, Fort McHenry has escaped relatively unscathed. If I just edited out the factories and the Key Bridge looming in my peripheral vision, I could almost see it. If I replaced the air-conditioned cabin I was sitting in with the deck of a sailboat, soaking in those 1814 morning rays of September (which could have been hot or freezing in Baltimore), I could imagine myself there. If I replaced the billows of smoke coming from the steel factories with smoke coming from the bombs on that victorious night; if I could envision the sun rising, not setting; if I could add a bit of death, destruction and triumph to set the mood, the image became clearer. There was one thing I didn’t have to leave to the imagination, “The Star Spangled Banner,” waving proudly over “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Then it dawned on me how little time had passed since the battle of Baltimore. When I was little, anything in a history book was clustered into one department: A Really Really Long Time Ago Before I was Born and Before My Mom Was Born. At some point during my adult life, I learned what cut flowers we are in the grand linked chain of things. Since this discovery, when I come into contact with a certain piece of history, my mind lingers on the amount of time between then and now. I’m always surprised, like a dog wasting every weekday away at home alone until he hears that familiar car door that is so distinct from the other car doors and thinks, this isn’t the rest of my life! She came back! To put it into perspective for you, I’ve compiled a list of time-frame comparisons that might help.

The amount of time that has passed since Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner is also:

  • The amount of time it would take to grow 1,200 inches of hair.
  • About .00000308 the amount of time since dinosaurs roamed the earth. That happened 65 million years ago. Now, that’s a long time.
  • 40 times the shelf life of canned tuna
  • 20 times the shelf life of raw honey
  • Approximately 1,140 laps around the world. If you ran 10 meters per second and you could swim just as fast as you ran. Nonstop.
  • The life capacity of a sea turtle. In fact, there could be a sea turtle still living today that witnessed Francis Scott Key sailing the seas aboard the Minden.
  • 2.5 times the life expectancy of the average American.
  • 5 times the life expectancy of someone living in 1814.
  • The amount of time it took for scientists to formulate the cell theory.
  • 2 times the length of the 100-year war. If it had really lasted 100 years.
  • 2 times the length of the 100-year war minus 32 years.
  • Approximately one quarter of the age of the world’s tallest tree, located in Northern California.
  • About 438,000 round trips on the light rail.

See – not very long at all. After the boat ride, we all sat down and enjoyed a nice bowl of bay water infused sugary ice cream.

Image by Rick Wagner via Flicker.

You may also like


  1. Jim Karantonis 4 years ago

    Thank you for the enjoyable tour of harbor and family. Jim

    Reply Like Dislike