Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Details, details: the downside of paying attention

I had an experience last week at the visitor center that I'm sure won't be the last of its sort.

A man strode up to me with a big file folder in his hands and proceeded to regale me with his research of his great,great, grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. He detailed the process he made of tracking down his ancestor's records through the National Archives as well as local history rooms in various libraries. He had a lot of cool stuff in that folder. Then he proudly produced his trump card - a photograph. ''that's him, taken shortly after the battle of Gettysburg."

The quickest glance at the picture had me searching for words that would come under the heading of "breaking it to him gently".

"Well sir..." I began, "this may very well be a later photo of the person of whom you speak, however this is not a Civil War soldier..." I went on to point out that this soldier was in the sort of uniform worn many years later - during the Spanish-American war. I also explained that the web cartridge belt was of a later era and that the trap-door style receiver on his rifle was a system that wasn't even invented until a year after the Civil War had ended.

The gentleman listened to my line of reasoning, and then, slowly closing his file folder, he responded;

"Isn't it funny how they did things back in the Civil War?" "Imagine, giving soldiers guns that hadn't even been invented yet!"

He walked away thinking his story was still intact though infinately more interesting.

Sometimes the truth will not set you free.

Speaking of looking at old photographs with a critical eye, this interesting website was brought to my attention:

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

1961: the year it all began

When I was nine a watershed event occurred for me. My mother suggested that she and I start a "Civil War scrapbook", whatever that was. Although I had no clue as to what either the Civil War or a scrapbook was, I'm pretty sure that my response was an enthusiastic "Keen!". I was always up for doing stuff with my mom. She had a real knack for making things fun.

What prompted her idea was a recurring pictorial installment in LIFE magazine celebrating the centennial of the Civil War.

She and I spent many evenings with scissors and glue designing this fabulous one-of-a-kind manuscript; my Civil War scrapbook (like, doesn't everybody have one?) which I still have.

One winter night around that same time, my dad stuck his head in the bedroom (shared by my older brother and me) and announced "If you guys keep your room clean, pay attention to your mother, and behave yourselves, I'll take you to Gettysburg this summer." I was dumbstruck! Fortunately our father didn't hold us to our end of that bargan- and that summer, he, my brother, and I were packed in the Corvair and heading toward Gettysburg and my future.(that's me...future Ranger Mannie)

That trip had a major influence on me, as did a timely response to a piece of my juvenile fanmail to Civil War historian, Bruce Catton, as well as the release of the John Wayne movie "The Horse Soldiers" and the manufacture of plastic Civil War playsets by the Louis Marx Company. This was the harmonic convergence of getting a kid, me, interested in American history in general and the Civil War in particular.

So now I find myself with a dream job at Antietam National Battlefield, our nation's most significant Civil War related national park. I give two presentations daily, always hoping to spark the imagination of the nine-year-olds in my audience. I couldn't have hoped to be in a better place with a better job. I only wish that my mother, my father, and Bruce Catton were sill around to accept my thanks.

Kids are never know what'll spark their imagination.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The harsh realities: rangering

Since I got this great job of being a seasonal ranger, I've had a few acquaintences say to me something like..."Wow man, if I knew it was that easy, I'd have applied myself." or " Heck, I'll apply for that slot (meaning MY job) next year'

The cold fact of the matter, dear ranger wanna-bee friends is, that these jobs are scarce has hens teeth. Me getting this spot was a lucky combination of three things

1. Uncommonly lucky ( story of my life)

2. Very qualified (Very, like exceptionally)

3. I was a known entity at the park through volunteering.

For those of you interested in becoming NPS park rangers you should know that there's two types of rangers:

Seasonal Rangers make up 90% of the ranger force. Seasonal rangers enter at (and stay at ) the GS-5 level which is around $14.25 per hour with no benefits (other than having the coolest job in the world. Seasonal rangers can work at the same park for twenty years and end up no further ahead (pay-wise) than they started out. Even so, these jobs are pretty scarce, and totally cool.

Status Rangers are the other 10%. These are the folks that are doing this for a full-time living. These jobs are nearly impossible to come by. Typically, someone who wants to end up as a status ranger starts out as a voulunteer and then gets a seasonal job, usually at an urban park like Philiadelphia, or Boston, or incredibly remote parks like Alaska or Guam. You've really got to pay your dues for one of these jobs. After up to seven years of working in the hinterlands you can start requesting appointments in more desireable areas and simultaneously applying for those much coveted (and rare) "status" positions. Once status is attained you've got it made - full benefits as a federal employee with the potential for a long career with a pension at the end of it. But finding the rabbit-hole that leads to a status job is like finding...well, that rabbit hole to Wonderland.

So those that think that they'll get a cool job like mine simply because a guy like me got a job like mine may be sorely mistaken. It's a maddening combination of luck, credentials, luck, and good fortune that make even a seasonal job happen.

I guess the common denominator is, once again, VOLUNTEERING!!!

If you want to be a ranger, you'd better be willing to cheerfully volunteer first and let the park get to know you...and love you.

It worked for me.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Horses, horses, horses!

This week a gentleman came up to me as I was standing behind the admissions counter at Antietam Battlefield and asked if we allowed horses on the property. "Yessir we certainly do" I replied as I logged him in and gave him a copy of our equestrian policy. We often get riders in singly or in pairs who ride the battlefield roads. Thirty minutes later one of the other rangers came in the door and asked "Hey what's with all those horses and wagons unloading down by Dunker Church? There must be twenty of them."

Note to self: ask more detailed questions next time.

The pics below tell the tale.

Everyone had a nice time.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Gettysburg fawn: just in case you missed it yesterday.

Scroll down to yesterday's post to get the story on this guy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Busman's Holiday Part II: differing glimpses of Gettysburg

Today (my day off) I grabbed my camera and got on the road to Gettysburg and arrived just a little bit before 7:00 a.m.

Now, Gettysburg has always been important to me, its the first battlefield that I went to as a kid and was very instrumental in forming my early interest in the Civil War. Gettysburg, I've come to realize, has always had (at least in the 40 years I've been going there) the glitz, the fudge, and the tee-shirts that really appeal to kids. And cool stuff like the little stone castle on Little Round Top as well as the giant boulders of Devil's Den are the perfect places to spark a kid's imagination.

However, I think the more sophisticated the learner gets, the less he or she needs the diversions. That's why I've come to prefer being at Antietam. This tranquil and quite serene battlefield isn't as extensively marked with monuments as is the park at Gettysburg, it's much easier to get a glimpse as it was prior to the battle in 1862. Antietam also gets only a fraction of the bus and vechicle traffic of that of our sister park to the north. Unlike Sharpsburg (home of Antietam National Battlefield), the town of Gettysburg is highly developed and commercialized, something often commented on by our visitors who've just come from there. Sharpsburg isn't without amenities however. The one ice cream joint (Nutters) is simply the best and a Mennonite bakery with outstanding baked goods keeps visitors and locals stocked up on good bread and pies.

For a quiet day in a beautiful setting, come to Antietam and experience the countryside the way it looked a century and a half ago.

Okay now the pics, and to be fair to Gettysburg note that the subtitle is differing glimpses of Gettysburg. I took all of these pictures today. As you'll see from the last five shots you can still get away from it all at this great jewel of a park; Gettysburg National Military Park.

One view of Gettysburg:

Ghost walks are so abundant I hope the ghosts are getting some sort of kick-back.

That's "350+" tee shirts, just in case you're travelling with a large group.

Union and Confederate sectionalism rears its ugly head in Idaho.

Gridlock on Little Round Top.

Hey, lookit all the people! As I walked behind each tour group I could hear the four different guides giving similar versions of the same story, like some sort of multiple echo effect. Psychedlic, man!

Another view of Gettysburg:

Its not hard to "get away from it all" at Gettysburg. The further you get off the tour bus route the more of this outstanding park you'll have to yourself.

After a long period of restoration the observation deck of the Pennsylvania monument is once again open to visitors. A great view from a great vantage point. And look, I'm the only one up there!

Similar to Antietam, the Park Service at Gettysburg is selectively removing trees and brush to restore the battlefield to the way it looked in 1863. They're doing an outstanding job of opening up vistas that haven't been seen for a century.

But as this pic proves, wild places still abound on the battlefield. Of course the trick in getting a shot of this cutie was to get to the battlefield by 7:00 a.m. before the tourists arrive.

We've a great system of National Parks. Enjoy them, they're yours after all.

After the smoke clears...

This little swift resides in one of the guns at Antietam.

After all of the noise, smoke, and hoopla of artillery weekend and other such events, it's business as usual for this brilliantly blue bug biter. The cozy bed of feathers down the muzzzle probably conceals a clutch of hatchlings. I'll keep an eye on developments.
I'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Ka-BLAM!: Artillery weekend at Antietam National Battlefield

Once a year at Antietam National Battlefield the sound and fury of "Artillery Weekend' unfolds. this year a Confederate four-gun battery assembled 100 yards north of the visitor center and for two days recreated the sights and sounds of Civil War artillery in action!Members of the Baltimore Light Artillery manhandle a gun into position.

Park rangers, specially trained in black powder safety, inspect all guns and supervise the gun crews. This is serious business and these professionals make sure the event goes off without a hitch or a hazard.

A gunner brings up water buckets to swab out the guns between each volley to insure that all sparks and embers are extinguished.

A batteryman inspects the ammunition chest on the limber to make sure that all charges and primers are safely stowed and ready for action.

The charge is rammed home, and the order is given to...

"...FIRE... section!"

The grime of a hot day's work.

You shoulda' been there.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Artillery weekend: here come the guns!

June 10 and 11 are Artillery weekend at Antietam National Battlefield, and the guns started arriving today; a twelve-pound Napoleon from South Mountain State Park and a three-inch ordnance rifle from Harper's Ferry National Park, both with limbers.

The beautiful bronze Napoleon from south Mountain

Harper's Ferry's contribution is the black iron beast in the foreground

Man, it's going to be a loud and fun weekend at Antietam. Altogether four guns in battery will be providing firing demonstrations for two noise and consussion filled days (not to mention the clouds of smoke). Bring your camera!

Have I mentioned how cool this job is?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What a difference a hat makes: my first week as a ranger

Whatta week.

Forms filled out, procedures to learn, presentations to write and, am I having fun. As all of the other rangers remind me (all the time) this is the greatest job in the world. I asked one of the other rangers (Brian) if there was some sort of basic training program for rangers to learn the rudimentary skills. He replied "There is, it's called volunteering. You did it, I did it, we've all done it. that's how you learn to be a ranger".

So, I guess my instincts were right.

Just as this was my first week, it was ranger Paul's last week. After thirty some years of government service ranger Paul Chiles hung up his stetson. He had nearly three hundred people at his retirement bash including dozens of National Park honchos and just as many best-selling Civil War authors and historians. Paul is nothing short of a living legend and a walking encyclopedia of Civil War information. I'm glad that so many of my volunteer days were spent at the front counter with him where I could listen in as he dispensed knowledge to visitors, volunteers, and rangers alike.

Here's a characteristic pic of Paul explaining the battle of Antietam to appreciative visitors.

Just across the street from the entrance to the battlefield is an unimposing ranch house that was sold a few years ago to the park service. Its the same house that for years my wife used to point to as we'd drive past Antietiam and say "wouldn't it be great to live THERE!" That's now where my desk and bookcase are.

This is the view from my desk taken early on a foggy morning. That's the tower at the sunken road in the near distance and Elk Ridge in the background.

Like every other new ranger, I started without having a uniform of my own. I was directed to a huge closet of shirts and trousers that earlier rangers had outgrown or abandoned over the years. By lunch of my first day I was completely tricked out in second hand trousers and shirt, an abandoned hat, and a borrowed hatband and badge. I haven't worn this many hand-me-downs since I was seven years old. Hopefully, the stuff I've ordered should be arriving this week.

At the end of my first day, thinking about what I'd learned so far, I realized that wearing that hat causes people to take everything I say at face value.


I'll keep you posted.