Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sign of the Times: Gettysburg Casino

All over Gettysburg you now see yard signs for or against the building of a casino in the area. Local voters seem pretty evenly split on the subject. Each side has hired its own study to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the casino will be good or bad for the community.

Some nice preservationists came by the Antietam visitors center the other day and the chat turned to developments "up north" as Gettysburg is often referred to. They seemed a little alarmed and even put off by the fact that I really have no opinion on the matter of the casino.

My comment was something like "I guess the folks up there will decide what they want, and who should know better than them?" Clearly that was the wrong response, and I was then quoted chapter and verse regarding the deliterious impact of a casino upon the integrity of a hallowed battlefield.

As if Gettysburg were pristine and unspoiled ground! I think the tee shirt shops "art" galleries, and motels took care of that a long, long time ago. Perhaps the military man who had the greatest impact on the post war look of the immediate environs of the battlefield was that famous Colonel from Kentucky, you know him...Sanders.

I suppose many folks in Gettysburg want more employment opportunities, who am I to begrudge them? Sometimes it seems that ACW enthusiasts forget that G'burg is still an actual town filled with people who are trying to scrape by, many of whom haven't the least interest in the battle of Gettysburg and more interested in the battle of keeping the wolf from the door.

It will be interesting to see what happens. I'm just glad I live down here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Gettysburg Cyclorama Center: a lingering last look

The first time I saw the Cyclorama Center, I think 1961, it was still under construction. To my nine-year-old eyes it looked like a big oil storage tank. Today, 45 years later, that building is slated for destruction sometime in 2008 - maybe.

How does an architectural marvel like the Richard Joseph Neutra-designed Gettysburg Cyclorama Center go from a world class building (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) to a candidate for matriculation into the nearest landfill in less than 50 years?

Today I went and paid my last respects to two old friends- the Cyclorama Center and the Gettysburg Visitors Center (the old Rosensteel Museum).

Both of these buildings are slated for destruction following the opening of the new visitors center sometime in 2008. As the entepot for my life-long interest in the Civil War, I will miss these two places and the experiences that I had with my dad and older brother when we, as budding Civil War pilgrims, first entered those wonderous doors of electric maps, spent minne balls, and giant paintings.

I wish Gettysburg National Military Park only the best with its new visitors center. At the same time, I cherish the memories that made Gettysburg such an important place to me and countless other nine-year-olds.

(click on the images for larger versions)
The Cyclorama Center is sited among mature trees.

The former reflecting pool, not quite as the architect intended when he wrote "...a pool reflecting the everlasting sky over all of us."

When walking around in the building I always expected George and Jane Jetson to come around the corner of the...
space-age stairwell

The reflecting pool, or at least what was the reflecting pool, as viewed from inside.

The spiral walkway up to the rotunda which housed the giant 360-degree Gettysburg cyclorama painting (currently under restoration).

One of the most intriguing aspects of the building is this very simple display of faux wreckage of battle at the base of the rotunda ramp. Several disabled and shattered guns, limbers and muskets in a dirt and rock setting which often have visitors asking if this is a preserved portion of the battle's aftermath.

The vaults which used to house and display the Gettysburg address manuscript in Lincoln's handwriting.

And now, sadly, the Norma Desmond photos, the pretty pass that this once magnificent building has come to.

The once stylish lounge is now a mix of original and replacement furniture in various states of repair, all contrasting nicely with the buckled and worn carpet.

One of numerous unrepaired cracks in what once was a very handsome terrazzo floor.

Once stylish furniture that's seen better days.

One of many broken, and unrepaired windows.

I think time has run out for Nuetra's once wonderful building.

Take some time to visit an old friend, while you still can.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

It's SHOWTIME! (part two)

Today I gave one of my favorite presentations; the 45 minute ranger-led artillery walk. It explores the role of artillery during the battle of Antietam. Park visitors really seem to enjoy having artillery de-mystified. I also like to spend less time on hardware and more time on people stories. People are what make history so interesting after all.

Most of the rangers give the artillery walk, and the'yre all very good at it and approach it from slightly different angles. This is a great way to get outdoors with a group of visitors who may or may not know much about the war or the battle. When you get them on the actual ground of this cataclysmic event and open their eyes to the incredible stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times, doing incredibly heroic, cowardly, valorous, or foolish things they often start to see the people of history in a different way. Sometimes this is the first time that they stop to realize that the men and women of the Civil War were exactly the same sort of folks we are today; flesh and blood, and not the bronze or marble heros that we often reduce them to.

This job sure is fun!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Everyone has an opinion

"Heck, I could do your job."

Every once in a while a ranger hears those words from a visitor. It usually means that the person knows a lot about the Civil War in general or Antietam in particular and that's just their way of letting you know that they're very hip to the subject.

As in:

"You don't have to tell me, y'see I've been studying this battle for 15 years now, heck, I could do your job!"

"Thank you sir, enjoy your visit."

Sometimes it comes from a doting parent of a bright 5th grader:

"Tyler had the Civil War last year in 4th grade. He's an expert on the subject. Heck, he could do your job!"

"That's wonderful ma'am. Tyler, keep up the good work. Enjoy your visit."

It certainly keeps this ranger humble. Sometimes humility seems a rare commodity among specialists, authorities, fifth graders, and other experts. So I've recently started to routinely inject some humility into all of my ranger presentations. Look, I figure if everyone told the story of the Civil War in the same way there'd be only one or two books out there on the subject: The Civil War by Bruce Catton, or perhaps the grumpy man's Civil War by Shelby Foote. But with literally thousands of books in and out of print on the subject it's pretty clear to me that there are an awful lot of ways to tell the same story.

That should keep any historian, writer, expert, fifth grader, or ranger pretty humble. Everyone seems to have their own opinions, which is how we keep bookstores and libraries chugging along.

So now, I end all of my presentations thus:

..."and ladies and gentlemen that's my version of the battle of Antietam."

It's just a happy disclaimer, a way of admitting that I'm just another learner, like everybody else, hopefully learning new things about the battle every live-long day. Its pleasant, its open-ended, its full of the potential and promise of discovery and growth. And, it makes me a much smaller target for the sharp-shooters, and we've all met THEM.

When one proclaims oneself as an expert one also becomes vulnerable to every other expert with a beef, an opinion, or a whacky idea. And heck...

my daughter could do their jobs.

Keep your head down...Ranger Mannie's got yer back!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Big doings at Antietam. Part 1: Salute to Independence

July first was the 21st annual Salute to Independence celebration at Antietam National Battlefield. People started staking out their claims on the highground behind the visitors center (Lee's position) with lawn chairs, coolers, food, bubbles, pinwheels, flags, awnings, and lots of sunscreen. Everyone was in a really upbeat mood. The park staff really enjoys hosting this annual celebration, its a great way to be a good neighbor. With about 30,000 neighbors in attendence the happy crowd was serenaded a strolling saxophone band as a warm up for the main event with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

The big musical finale was of course the 1812 overture with the cannon parts played by an artillery battery of the Maryland National Guard followed by fireworks. It really was a sight and sound spectacular!

The final event of the evening was the 90 minute "salute to traffic jams" as all those people tried to get out of Sharpsburg simultaneously.

The cool thing was that those 30,000 folks left very little trash behind...everybody loves Antietam.

Dixie to speak

Members of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra

Not a bad seat in the house

The cannon section "tunes up"

Ranger Mike and Artillerymen from the National Guard

"Oooh, Ahhhh!"

And a good time was had by all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Getting enough iron in my diet

I love hand-wrought iron. When prowling around the C&O Canal and Antietam Battlefield I'm continually encountering beautiful pieces of historic iron work. It should be no suprise to anyone familiar with this region that there were small iron-works all over in the 18th and 19th centuries. The village of Antietam (about four miles from Sharpsburg) was a major iron making community and an important employer for many of the people of early Sharpsburg.

As the pic below shows, I also like working with iron.

Here's a selection of pictures of cool pieces of iron that caught my eye. Pardon me for keeping the locations vague. I hope you like them.

I think the last one is my favorite.

A classic Maryland star. Visitors always ask what these things are. They are simply the nut ends of a long wrought iron bolt that passes through the width of a brick building to help keep the walls from bowing outward.

(Yes, that's exactly what you think it is!)

The works of an old gristmill on the canal

Detail shot of the lift bridge on the C&O Canal at Williamsport

A hand forged hook on the battlefield

Iron lock fittings on the canal

decorative aqueduct railings on the canal

More canal iron

Man, I love this place!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Parade of the Experts

"I don't need a brochure, I'm an Antietam expert of the highest degree".

Well, that's what he said, and I've no reason to doubt him. Expert or not, however, his ticket still cost him four bucks. I hadn't stopped to realize that I'd be meeting..."encountering" is the better many individuals who have real or imagined expertise and authority regarding the subject of the Civil War. Only makes sense, after all, National Geographic lists Antietam as the most pristine of our Civil War parks. We're a bright beacon attracting many tour groups led by famous authors.

The rangers often observe, with a suppressed chuckle, as a historian of the "highest degree" or equally renowned authority indicates an important landmark on the battlefield, say, the sunken road, and are actually pointing in the opposite direction (toward the outlet mall up Hagerstown way).

But, I guess it just goes to show that there's plenty of money to go around for everybody.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Happy is he who hangeth his hat with the rangers.

Cool news!

Yesterday I was informed by my supervisor that as a first-year ranger I was selected to receive an additional 960 training hours. What this obscure tidbit amounts to is that I will be working at Antietam, full-time as a ranger for all but about ten days of the next year (good-bye substitute teaching...for awhile)! Cool!

The second piece of news is that this coming Monday, I'll be giving my first two and a half hour battlefield tour. This is sort of like graduation for a new ranger. The battlefield tour is something that you work your way up to. You start off at the battlefield by first writing an outline for a thirty minute orientation talk, which I started doing as a volunteer in February. Then, rangers write and submit for approval an outline for a 45 minute artillery talk, which I've been doing for a month now. Finally, a new ranger joins the fraternity of seasoned rangers by writing and having approved an outline for a two- and- a-half hour battlefield tour.

Today Ranger Brian and Ranger Mike were out in 99 degree heat gamely giving their tours. Monday It'll be my turn and they're rooting for me. One of the coolest of the many cool things about this very cool job is the support one gets from the other rangers.

I'll stay hydrated and keep you posted!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

cel phones, ring tones and other indicators of bad manners.

Two days ago I added this line to all of my presentations at the park:
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Mannie Gentile and it is my great priviledge to be a ranger here at Antietam National Battlefield and my great pleasure to spend the next 30 minutes with you explaining the battle. Now is the time to disable your cel phones."

I decided to make this plea last week after one visitor had his cel phone ring TWICE during my presentation. Holey Moley! The wide variety of ringtones available these days means that a ranger's presentation my be interupted by the Mexican hat dance, The Saints Go Marching In, or Bohemian Rhapsody...yikes!

99% of all park visitors are the greatest people on the planet. That other 1 % are what keep it weirdly interesting, and provide the rangers with their funniest behind-closed-doors conversations (and those bull-pen conversations are absolutely hilarious!).

Don't let this happen to you...disable that cel phone please.

I'll see you out there on the trail...stay hydrated.

Your ranger,


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nobody here but us ghosts

With the proliferation of "ghost tours" and "ghost walks" in many of our older and more historic cities and sites, it comes as no suprise to me that one of the most frequently asked questions that I encounter is: "So, what kind of ghost activity do you have here?" The assumption always seems to be that paranormal activity is the norm rather than the exception.

Now, I have no qualms with any of the variety of ways that visitors are able to connect with the battlefield. More power to them. I salute whatever and however the battlefield becomes relevant to, or connects with, the visitor. It's just that I've not had any ghost experiences on the battlefield.

Historic Charleston, Gettysburg, and Savannah have provided a entreprenural goldmine for those who claim to be able to connect the so-inclined visitors to spirits, haints, and goblins. Me, I've seen nothing of the kind.

My standard response to visitors who are on a "haint hunt" is to say:

"Ma'am, the only ghosts around here are the ghosts of old park rangers".

As evidenced by this pic taken two days ago of the kitchen of the Samuel Poffenberger house on the Antietam Battlefield. For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw something...or someone!

Incidentally, that's also my response to the second-most asked question here, which is: "Do you still dig up lots of relics on the battlefield?"

"Sir, the only relics we dig up here are old park rangers."