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The Last 'Noel'

When all-Christmas-all-the-time became too much, he traded in carols for Cal.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; Page C02

As I barreled north toward Baltimore on Interstate 95, the questions jingled and jangled in my head.

Do you hear what I hear? Do they know it's Christmastime at all? Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?


Season's greetings have replaced baseball season at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md. ( John Deiner -- The Washington Post)
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Maybe. I hope so. Of course.

How could I not? Since the week before Thanksgiving, I'd been listening nonstop to the 24-7 yuletide fare on WASH (97.1 FM), a.k.a. "Washington's Home for the Holidays." At first, I couldn't get enough, carol junkie that I am. (Okay, even I can't stomach that horrible "Christmas Eve in Washington.") But the more I clung to the station, the more I began cringing when I heard that sappy tale of the kid and the Christmas shoes, and that weirdo wanting a hippopotamus under the tree, and Madonna making "Santa Baby" skeezier than it already is.

(* Vote for your favorite and least favorite songs on Travel Log.)

Yes, most people would simply turn it off. But I can't. This time of year, my hand instinctively, impulsively rams Button No. 6 on my car radio, where Christmas goes to die.

So with the dial set at 97.1 and a bah humbug in my heart, I hit the interstate. Destination: wherever Jose Feliciano and Co. became an indistinguishable mash of high octaves and transmissions from deep space. Free from all-Christmas-all-the-time, I'd find a room, grab some grub and explore the frontier at the edge of WASH-FM's reach. No matter where it was.

Eat my dust, Bing.

* * *

I was hoping to make it to Perryville, Md., and the outlets there. Might as well get some shopping done, right? But a few miles shy of the Chesapeake House rest area, I discovered that Celine Dion is even more annoying when accompanied by undulating static. The background noise (woo-hoo!) was winning out.

At Exit 85, just south of Perryville, Stevie Wonder's "One Little Christmas Tree" became intermingled with a tune by either Frank Sinatra or Black Sabbath. Hard to tell exactly. But Stevie -- and Washington's Home for the Holidays -- were gone.

I was in Aberdeen, home town of Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. and site of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground. I'd passed the exit hundreds of times en route to see family in Jersey, always wondering what exactly is a proving ground. And Ripken? I'm still bitter about the traffic spawned in the area during the construction of the stadium for his minor league team, the IronBirds.

At the La Quinta just off the exit, I was surprised to find only one room at the inn -- and it was a suite. "You could go elsewhere," the desk clerk said, "but all the hotels around here are packed with military personnel tonight." She winced when revealing the tab was $99. Expecting far worse, I smiled. (Though hot water and the gratis breakfast fixins were scarce the next morning, that was fine by me, as the far more deserving soldiers -- early risers all -- had gotten the best of both.)

With the radio off, I canvassed the town. The night was cold, the traffic sparse. On one street, a large wooden Nativity set shared a lawn with an inflatable trio of snowmen driving a race car. (Man, I wish I had that sort of gumption; it's all pine roping and electro-candles at my house.) Large Victorians, many with shrubs draped in lights, lined the main drag leading into the small downtown. In front of a bank near the town's Amtrak station, an illuminated Santa pitched a baseball to what appeared to be his twin.

While Christmas is a big deal in Aberdeen, signage apparently is not. Most attractions are unheralded, so finding a spot like Festival Park -- a pretty square near the municipal building with a Christmas tree and electrified reindeer hoofing it atop a picnic pavilion -- was akin to unearthing a gift buried waaay under the tree.

One place I couldn't locate was the Ripken Museum, a shrine to all things Cal. At the Olive Tree Italian restaurant (that's right, Olive Tree), Vicki the waitress told me I just had to see it.

"It's the best thing in town," she boasted. "It's always open, so you can't miss it."

Vicki, Vicki, Vicki. Why the deception? The next day, I was told the museum is temporarily closed while it moves to the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy, near Ripken Stadium. Heck, all I wanted was a magnet. I rushed to the souvenir store at the stadium. Also closed. But the stadium's gate was open.

With snow flurries turning into a full-out early-winter fury, I poked around the vacant seats under an employee's watchful gaze. Who needs hot dogs and sweaty fans and spitting players? Well, I do, but there's a mesmerizing beauty to an empty baseball stadium shrouded in falling snow.

A few miles away, a wreath covered much of the "Proving" on the sign greeting visitors to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, which develops, tests and provides training on Army munitions and equipment. And at its Ordnance Museum, the letters N-O-E-L were stuck to the glass over the doors, a touching nod to peace at what is ostensibly a salute to weaponry.

Each year, more than 50,000 people visit the museum, which contains one of the world's largest collections of military ordnance, including small arms, tanks and armored vehicles. One exhibit features cross-sectioned grenades and land mines; another spotlights the history of ammo. With roadside bombs exacting such a deadly toll in the Iraq war, displays on bomb removal and disposal struck a particular chord.

Outside in a snow-covered field, rows of vintage tanks and other vehicles surrounded the museum building as if they were about to attack. At times, the sound of ice crunching under my feet was replaced by the distant, sobering booms from a testing range. Then, silence.

I eased the car back onto the interstate, my right index finger shooting straight to Button No. 6. I needed a little Christmas, right that very minute.

* Nightly rates at the Aberdeen La Quinta Inn (793 W. Bel Air Ave., 410-272-6000, http://www.lq.com) start at about $79 double. The Olive Tree restaurant is right around the corner; dinner for two, with wine, is about $35. Admission to the Ordnance Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Ground (http://www.ordmusfound.org) is free; make sure you have your car registration so you can get a visitors pass at the front gate. For the latest on the Ripken Museum, go to http://www.ripkenmuseum.com. Info on Aberdeen: 410-272-1600, http://www.aberdeen-md.org.


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