Twice previously, while driving back to California from Arizona, I’d stopped for coffee at a nowhere-ville exit called Chiriaco Summit, way out in an unlovely part of the Southern California desert. Except for a Foster’s Freeze, a convenience store and a truck-stop-style gas station, the only thing at the exit is a very lame-looking museum in honor of Gen. George Patton — a sad little one-story building, with eight or 10 sad-looking WWI-vintage tanks rusting outside.
But on New Year’s Day 2013, I was driving back from Arizona with my 15-y-o son, the complete history freak, and my 9-y-0, brilliant-as-white-diamonds daughter when I needed the coffee. And this time, they demanded that we pay the admission and go inside the Patton museum — only to be completely blown away. I was expecting an ironic, can-you-believe-this-tourist-trap experience. Instead, the museum is larger than seems possible, and the memorabilia it throws in front of you is fascinating, voluminous, almost overwhelming in its evocation of Patton and WWII. I don’t have time right now to give a full explanation of the wonder of the place, but I’ll try describing one artifact that gives a sense of the detail that pervades: Walking into the dim depths of the musuem, I notice an extremely detailed map of the port of Cherbourg, which the Allies had to take if they were to supply their invasion of continental Europe after D-Day. So I’m staring at the map, fascinated, without much noticing what seems to be a copper-topped table, at about my mid-chest level, below the map. Then I look down and notice there are markings on the copper. Then I see that the copper “table” is actually the reverse-etched copper printing plate that the Allies used to produce the maps of Cherbourg they distributed to the troops tasked with taking the port. The museum is full of these kind of “oh my God” wonders, one after another, and if you’re ever driving through on I-10, it’s not just worth the stop. It’s a required stop. You’ll never watch Patton, the movie, in the same way again.
So why is this wonderful Gen. George Patton museum at the Chiriaco Summit exit off I-10 in an absolutely nowhere part of the godforsaken Southern California desert, anyway? The full explanation is here, but the short version: This is where Patton established a desert warfare training facility, so US forces would have half a chance fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.