Thursday, April 26, 2012

Episode 61: The One with the Cannons

Hollow symbol or still meaningful
with enough massaging?
This past weekend, I found myself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History. Sessions abounded on both the Civil War and interpretation, as well as any other American historical topic you could imagine. The OAH debuted their new Imperiled Promise report on NPS history practices (which Jake commented on last week). Kevin Levin participated with other Civil War folks on a Civil War Working Group discussing the course of the 150th and beyond.

But the session that caught my ear and provided fodder for what might be a boatload of posts in coming weeks was the panel session on the future of battlefield interpretation, particularly the remarks of Gettysburg College's Peter Carmichael and Richmond National Battlefield's Ashley Whitehead (I've fully transcribed the prepared remarks of both Carmichael and Whitehead for those who weren't in America's Dairyland this weekend).

Both Carmichael and Whitehead mentioned the efficacy (or lack thereof) of cannon on Civil War battlefields, and more broadly of living history interpretation in battle landscapes. Carmichael lamented the transition of the battlefield toward pristine, artistic landscape:

Unfortunately, Civil War battlefields today resemble decorative landscapes. They are largely depoliticized and I think this is best exemplified by the ways that cannon figure into visitors' experience. The iconic symbol of the Civil War has lost its meaning as a weapon of destruction and death.

"Cannon, as you well know, have become the jungle gyms where scores of kids, as you've probably seen, have imperiled themselves on the gun barrels doing all kinds of acrobatic feats while their parents were gone. Or, what has the cannon become? A toy trinket that is purchased at a gift shop then taken home as some kind of nostalgic reminder of the Civil War.

"When we allow this to happen, when we allow the material culture of the Civil War to become decorative pieces, we miss an opportunity to explore why Civil War soldiers were conflicted over the morality of killing and destroying their enemy."

Whitehead, seizing upon the concept of the meaningless cannons on the field and drilled deeper into the world where those cannon shift from silent lawn ornaments into roaring volcanoes:

And it has kind of become an issue for me when I think about how much we really tell people by doing the same cannon demonstration over and over again, by showing them how to load and fire in nine times. What is that really getting people to know? [How does it] separate the mechanics of how you would fire the gun, kind of the cool factor of being near a gun and having it fired at a living history artillery demonstration, from the fact that it is a killing machine. We need to use those living historians, I think, in a much more smart way, I guess."

Whitehead discounts the concept of a firing demonstration as a moment for meaning-making wholesale. Throughout her address, she utilizes the concept of an, "artillery demonstration," as a sort of shorthand for poor, meaningless interpretation. But reflecting on this, I'm not sure that the problem lies as much with the concept of black powder on battlefields as it does with how that black powder is framed and interpreted by a park's own staff.

The problem lies, in my estimation, not in what is being done but in who is doing the work. Artillery demonstrations and small arms firings can, through carefully crafted interpretation and intentionality in how a demonstration is presented, be made into deeply moving and engaging interpretive experiences. This careful intentionality is, however, wholly absent at many historic sites.

When I worked with the Living History branch at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, there were a few occasions when we explained the black powder regulations to a new visiting reenacting unit. Black powder is only to be issued immediately before a presentation, two range officers must be present at all times when demonstrations are being performed and, at Harpers Ferry, the majority of the interpretation is typically taken on not by the volunteers but by professional interpreters dressed in period clothing as well. At the end of these explanations of the national rules and local policies, there were a few times when an irate commander might respond, "That's not how they did it at Park X and Park Y! They just gave us our gunpowder on Friday night and said 'Have fun, we'll see you Sunday!'"

We would patiently explain that Park X and Park Y were not following the national standards for black powder and that in this park we did follow the rules.

I have a suspicion that the meaningless firing demonstrations Whitehead speaks about were these types of unaudited, poorly supervised and uninterpreted demonstrations. When enthusiast are left alone, by and large, they tend to drift toward the mechanics of the material culture and away from broader, deeper meanings. A few units I have worked with do understand and take to heart the concepts of interpretation, offering deeper and broader emotional meanings for the Civil War beyond butt-plates, gun-stocks and trunnion caps (I'm thinking particularly of the excellent 142nd Penna. Inf.). But the vast majority of reenactors think simply listing facts and endlessly lecturing at visitors is interpretation.

What if we made a concerted effort to place a real, dyed-in-the-wool interpreter at that, "same cannon demonstration," that we present each weekend when volunteers come into our sites? Why not intentionally and professionally layer meaning atop the living historians' actions. Send interpreters out in the field to contact visitors, to place these firing demonstrations into a broader and meaningful context.

This in not to say improvements and modifications shouldn't be made to living history programs. Living history can be improved and expanded to help visitors access meanings far beyond simple boxes-on-a-map military interpretation. I'm not talking about asking living history volunteers, "to come out from different spots in the tree line and see exactly where they end up," in essence asking them to be used as expensive living mannequins and nothing more.

No. Imagine placing living history volunteers into situations and landscapes where they might not readily be expected. I'm reminded of the effective preservation photographs from Time Magazine last year placing reenactors into historic landscapes which had been lost to development. The message was clear and concise, the pain of seeing these men out of context in convenience store parking lots and under highway overpasses. I can imagine reenactors spending a day "camped" in a McDonald's parking spot, talking to every car pulling through the drive-thru about how men died where they are now buying their Big Mac.

How is THIS different than a
typical use of living history?
And the Greater Washington National Parks have done something very similar to this type of jarring juxtaposition, linking the men fighting in the field with the ideals and people for whom they fought with a new YouTube video series (the first episode of which Jake and I found earlier today and which appears at left). The young, modern stand-in for an 1860s United States soldier rides the Metro to the National Mall and marches the long path to the Lincoln Memorial. As he walks, heads turn as realization and revelation comes to the surrounding spectators and employees. He steps into the sainted temple and glances up at the marble version of Lincoln.

But that memorial is not simply a Civil War landscape, it goes further. Those steps he walked up remind me of the Black songbird's struggle to simply share her voice with the world. Those steps remind me of the minister who preached a gospel of love and acceptance, and demanded not only to be heard, but for the world to shift into a better place.

Can deeper meaning be found by placing something in a foreign, wrong context? Sometimes, I think that's the perfect answer.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Crowdsourcing History: When We All Get To Help

Standing above "Freedom,"
looking at Discovery. /
CC NASA/SI/Harold Dorwin
I'm a bit bitter this week. The arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery to the Washington, D.C. area has got me down. My first dream job as a kid, before I wanted to be a LEGO model designer or National Park Service ranger, was the illustrious position of space garbage man. I think part of that came from my grandfather's penchant for taking me around the neighborhood on trash day during his smoke breaks and picking through the fine assemblages of junk the neighbors had left by the curb. There was some sort of glamour in the idea of seeing the trash of the stars, I guess. But a lot of that desire came from a deep fascination with space. One of my favorite sandbox toys was a die-cast Space Shuttle that sat on a big-rig trailer. The little sticker on its nose read, "Discovery." I had two of the iconic early '90s LEGO Space Shuttles. In the past year, I've acquired two more.

Tuesday put me in a sour mood. For my whole lifetime, from my earliest possible memories, the Space Shuttle has been the embodiment of what America can be. It defined our nation: we fly to space. Sure, it was only Low Earth Orbit, but it was our nation's greatest everyday achievement. Tuesday, the reality that that achievement has evaporated became real when the Space Shuttle Discovery, the same one I had played with in my sandbox, landed at the Udvar-Hazy Center for its permanent dry-dock. It's ironic it happened on Tax Day. One of the reasons I'm proud to pay my taxes each year is that it means we can go to space. Now we can't.

Tuesday was an historic day. And the amazing thing about that historic day was the everyday people who captured it. Twitter was alive with the hashtags #Discovery and #spottheshuttle the whole morning. Amazing photos rolled into the Flickr group created to allow folks to document their experiences. By noon, nearly 1,000 photos had been added to the group, capturing the shuttle and it's 747 ferry winging over DC landmarks as diverse and disparate as The Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Castle and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

An official NASA photo captured the wonderment the district felt nearly perfectly. Standing atop the scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Freedom crowning the Capitol dome are two construction workers, marveling at the spacecraft winging by. That wonder translated for many into holding their smartphones aloft, to clicking the shutter button on their point-and-shoots, to zooming in with their expensive telephoto lenses. They all became historians of the present, capturing the moment in time they saw history for a future generation, then sending their view out to the world to be processed, catalogued and preserved.

Imagine that impulse for a moment, the impulse to capture this event and preserve it in your heart and on your hard drive. That's the historian's prerogative. We grab the world around us and frantically try to bottle it up, synthesize it, find meaning in it and share it with the world.

Crowdsourcing is not a new concept. SETI@home has been using spare CPU cycles of volunteers' computers to analyze data collected from our radio telescopes since 1999. Folding@home has been doing the same thing since 2000 to analyze protein folding and molecular structures. Science has lent itself easily to these computation ways that individuals can help solve a problem.

The humanities have been a whole other problem to tackle. We are just now, nearly a decade and a half after SETI@home started trolling the skies looking for a cosmic collect call, beginning to think of the general public as valid sources of our analysis.

My grandpa in Europe, 1944.
 Jess says that I have that same
"surly" look in my repertoire of
facial expressions. I can only hope.
Tuesday, just as Discovery was winging overhead, the National Archive's blog NARAtions pointed out a project they've undertaken to create an index for the 1940 census. When the census was released on April 2nd, I was disappointed to say the least. My grandfather's family (the same Grandfather I trash-picked with) bounced around the city of Syracuse, NY like a pinball in the 1930s and '40s. My Mom likes to share the joke he used to make that, for a long time, he didn't know which house to come home to at night 'cause the family might've moved while he was gone.

To find anyone in the 1940 census, you need to know their address, their exact address on April 1, 1940. There is no index for the census, so you need to know the exact location where your ancestors lived when the census taker came knocking. Good luck finding that for the Bullard family. I can't find George and Gladys Bullard or their son, my Grandfather Bob, anywhere in the areas of Syracuse I'd expect them to be.

But amateurs are going to help me. A corps of amateurs, a gaggle of amateur citizen historians, are going to help me find Bob Bullard. A quarter million people have volunteered to help me find Bob Bullard. They will be helping to index the 1940 census, using software provided for free by NARA, and thereby helping me find my grandfather once again. According to NARA, "the entire 1940 census data will be indexed by a community of volunteers and made available for free. The free index of the census records and corresponding images will be available to the public for perpetuity." That means that someday my cousin Leanne's daughters, my 1st cousins once removed, will be able to find the name of the great-grandpa they never met in the 1940 census thanks to a crowd of amateur historians today.

We all make history. We don't need degrees. We don't need robes and mortar boards and dissertations. We just need our wits and a few tools. Sometimes they're our cameras. Sometimes they're the computer sitting in front of us. Sometimes they're our bare hands.

We all can make history.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the NPS

Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a joint report between the NPS and the OAH was released a couple of weeks ago. Since then, it has been mentioned on Twitter, other blogs, on the OAH's website, and it figures to be the topic of much discussion when the NCPH and OAH meet up in Milwaukee this weekend for their annual conference. I've read the report several times now, and I have been mulling over it for some weeks. I felt now would be a proper to time to throw a couple of my reactions out there as well.

Generally, I think most of the report is dead on - it confirms much of my feelings about history in the National Parks. It feels somewhat satisfying that your fears and troubles have at least been recognized - I think we have identified in this report the major problems that National Park Service faces as an agency.

Yet, one thing not described in the report is the language barrier. Simply put, professional historians and park ranger interpreters don't speak the same language. The definition of interpretation is different in both professions, one that will be a thorn in everyone's side going forward. To me, interpretation isn't an argument about the past.  Interpretation doesn't answer the question, "Why did it happen, what it means, or why it is important to us today." Interpretation is a opportunity creator. It is speaking the language of the past, in order to help the present visitor connect to it. It offers up no primary argument about why such thing happen, instead, it explores multiple viewpoints to find meaning, never discriminating against any one single meaning. In the end, interpretation's main goal it to promote care, and whatever form it takes. It's hard for academically trained historians to grasp this - as a master's student in history, I wrestle with these conflicting views of historical interpretation all the time. And that's a good thing, wrestling with the idea. But not having the shared language sometimes makes historians and interpreters their own worst enemies.

Three of the report's findings especially rung true to me - going forward, I think fixing these problems are the key to revitalizing history in the Park Service:

#10. The Constraints of Boundaries, Establishing Legislation, and Founding Father Histories.
The Park Service really needs to break out of this mold. No interpreter can ignore meaningful events because they aren't part of the prescribed founding legislation of his/her specific site. We can't build silos at historic sites. The world is interconnected - just like it was in the past. History that happened over here relates to what over there. We need to see our historic sites as a spider web of entangled themes and ideas, that run their course and disappear, then reappear again, slightly different, as they have been transformed and molded once again to fit a different time period. We need to get over the Three Days in July Syndrome.

#11 Fixed and Fearful Interpretation.
As I've said before, give visitors everything. Show them the good, the bad, the terrible, and the unspeakable. Help them to make sense of the country's greatest moments of triumph and darkest days of despair. We need to talk about history - especially history deemed uncomfortable and or controversial.  It's hard, getting over your own fears as interpreter, whether it be over race, gender, discrimination, war, climate change or whatever other controversial subject your site deals with (most likely all of them). The NPS as a whole, has to embrace controversy, welcome it, and relish the opportunity to present the real whole history - the messy, confusing, and contradictory record of human interaction that is history.

#12 Civic Engagement, History, and Interpretation
The NPS has to take up the role of civic engagement mantle - by fostering citizens of democracy everywhere. We need to embrace the mentality of visitor engagement first at historic sites everywhere. Allowing visitors to have agency and voice, allowing them to have their say and to be heard should be mantras. But like finding #11 suggests, the NPS can't be afraid to tell visitors something they don't want to hear either...

All in all, I think the report is a good eye opener and wake up call. All that's left to do is act to keep the promise of excellent history and interpretation alive in the NPS.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Dead is Dead: Why 20% Doesn't Matter

Over at Cosmic America, Keith Harris beat me to the punch on this one. But Jake can attest to the fact that, since the "news" of the revision of Civil War dead up by 130,000 broke, I have been grumbling on and off.

This is what "one" looks like.
/ CC Like_the_Grand_Canyon
I have this philosophical challenge that I call the McDouble Problem. It was born of a conversation between myself and a few of my college friends when I noted to my close, personal economics geek that I can't understand the national debt. "What is 4 trillion dollars?" I asked, "It's an imaginary number. I can't visualize 4 trillion anythings."

I can imagine a dollar, because I can visualize one McDouble, the $1 cheeseburger at the millions of ubiquitous McDonald's fast-food joints dotting America. I can imagine $10, because I can visualize 10 McDoubles lined up in a row. I can imagine $100, because I can imagine 10 rows of 10 McDoubles. I can even begin to imagine $1,000, because I can imagine 10 layers of 10 rows of 10 McDoubles each, all stacked into a giant cheeseburger cube.

But after that, things become fuzzy. 1,000 anything is where my powers of estimation begin to wane.

Numbers are really tough to grasp when they start getting to astronomical heights. Penn Jillette (of & Teller fame) has a good (and somewhat vulgar / NSFW) description of how he personally conceptualizes numbers. My and my friends' economics conversation ended up creating an imaginary mile long cube of McDoubles in a hypothetical Delaware (no sales tax) with no gravity.

Don't worry, we're not headed to our own private Delaware today.

David Hacker, an historian at Binghamton University, has shifted our estimate of the number of Civil War dead up by about 130,000 corpses. My chief question, the most dangerous in all of the historical world: So What?

What do 130,000 corpses look like? I can't visualize that number. The concept of 130,000 dead bodies is completely unfathomable in my mind. So what's the difference between the old and new numbers? 620,000 dead in my mind is just as imaginary as 750,000 dead. Haven't those dead already been dead for 150 years? This new calculation changed nothing.

None of those raw numbers work in my mind. You can say, "750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, more than all other American wars combined up through Korea." The silent response inside my head is, "meh."

It's not that I don't care. Look through our back catalogue. I have nothing but care for the dead of the war. I recoil at the concept of wholesale bloodshed and state-sponsored destruction of human life.

I just am not moved by a statistic. It doesn't ring within my heart.

So what does?

We've quoted Freeman Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage here before, but I think it is applicable and bears repeating here:

...Americans are not descendants of a regiment; we are sprung from men and women."

His young face speaks louder
than any statistic can. / PD LOC
One body, one single man or woman and their personal struggle brings the war home to me.

In the town where I live, that body could be Amos Humiston clutching a photo of his three darling children as he breathes his last, never to kiss their sleeping heads again.

It could be my great-grand uncle, who more than likely was atomized by friendly fire as he and his comrades desperately retreated through the valley of death at the base of Little Round Top teaching those watching from their perches above, "how to die like soldiers."

It could be the screaming agony of a wounded Zouave, unable to drag himself from the former-refuge of the burning Sherfy Barn as red-hot embers and flaming beams tumble down on his prostrate body.

It could be Lt. Colonel Waller Patton, mortally wounded and unable to lay down, the only thing keeping him alive for the last lingering days of his life the support of a nurse's back sitting on the floor behind him as a makeshift human chair.

So 20% more people died in the Civil War than we though a few months ago. That doesn't change the fact that people, individual Americans with hopes, dreams, fears and loves died. The route to understanding that number is not found simply in shouting it from the rooftops.

No. The route to understanding comes through in finding one man and helping me understand his struggle, his suffering, his death. Because once I understand that one man, I can begin to feel the weight of 750,000 times his individual suffering.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Gettysburg: Sometimes It Works

Monday night, I took my class out on the 'battlefield.' I know some of them are taking my class because, "it's Gettysburg College and I should take a Civil War class before I leave." I couldn't resist the siren call to show them where they have lived for four years and transform the meanings of that ground for them. So we went on a campus tour, the battlefield they walk everyday when they go to class or dinner or out to party on a Friday night.

The College Boys who broke and
ran: one of my keystone tales
on the campus. / CC Deb Pittenturf
I showed them the Beachem portico, where construction workers once unearthed human bones, the remnants of a long forgotten amputation. I showed them the quad in front of the Library where Jack Hopkins' house stood during the battle, while Hopkins himself ran from the oncoming Confederates, unable to hide from the color of his own skin. I showed them the south portico of Pennsylvania Hall, where amputations took place in the open air and men nearly drowned in rivulets of water from the rains following the battle. I showed them the doorway where Alice Baugher, the College President's daughter stared coldly into the eyes of Robert E. Lee. I showed them the dining room where President Baugher sat down to a cordial dinner with former favorite student turned Confederate soldier James Crocker in the bloody aftermath of the battle.

This semester has been tough on me. It has felt like a never ending struggle to reach these kids, to show them that history can be exciting and personal and deeply human. On the first night of class, after going through the syllabus, I asked the question I ask of anyone with a desire to study history: "why do you hate history?"

Typically it conjures answers swirling around lists of dates and names with no context, no meaning.

Back in January, after we had reviewed the required reading and research paper for the course, it elicited a different response from one student: "I hate reading and I hate writing."

I was incensed that night, a holy fire lit within my gut. I didn't know how I would make it through the semester. I didn't know how I could reach out to these students. That night has haunted me this whole semester, constantly nagging at me and making me doubt that I could get through.

Monday night, I got an e-mail from the same student who said she hates reading and writing:
I come home to write science papers, but instead find myself googling Crocker and Hopkins! There is so much interesting stuff documented from the war.... This stuff is so cool!”

As we all walked back from the President's House toward Weidensall Hall, she admitted to me that as she started reading Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering for class, she was already thinking how "gross" it must have been on the campus in 1863.

I guess that's as good enough a reason as any to do this. She closed her note Monday night with a simple comment: "Hope that wasn't the last of the tours...."

I hope so too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Guest Post: Fear and Loathing at Shiloh

In a special guest post today, we offer up some thoughts from friend of the blog Vanessa Smiley. Vanessa is a good and stalwart interpreter and Civil War-geek. When she shared with me her experiences at the Shiloh reenactment this past weekend, I asked her to share them with all of you. -John

A portion of Shiloh's bloody harvest.
Everyone is and has been talking about the Shiloh 150th commemoration, whether it be the NPS event starting this week or the battle reenactment that took place this past weekend. It has been called the 'Antietam of the West.' All the events surrounding its 150th anniversary have been heralded as being one of 'the big ones' this year. Over 23,000 casualties of both sides in two days - a pretty significant and bloody battle.

I made the 14 hour road trip to the Shiloh battlefield this past weekend. I'm attending as many Civil War 150th events as I can and so I've been looking forward to this "big one" for months. My boyfriend Clayton and I decided to attend the reenactment this past weekend instead of the NPS events next weekend. Clayton had the unique opportunity to join nearly 600 reenactors/living historians to portray the 15th and 16th Iowa Infantry. Clayton would have the chance to arrive near the Shiloh visitor center via paddle boat on Friday night and the opportunity for some living history interaction with visitors to the park on Saturday morning before marching 5 miles to the reenactment site and straight into battle. In other words, this was Clayton's chance for his civil war "squee" moment.

I came along for the ride.

I am a living historian and while I enjoy the chance to don my corset and rugged work dress (I usually portray a working/lower class woman), this time I decided to go strictly as a spectator in modern clothes. Mind you, I've never done this - usually if I attend reenactments of Civil War battles, I'm dressed in my Civil War clothes and doing some sort of living history demonstration (cooking, laundry, etc.). I rarely get a chance to watch the battle itself. I wasn't sure what I expected but it sure wasn't what I ended up experiencing.

First, let's quickly crunch some numbers. Historically, over 44,000 Confederate soldiers and over 66,000 Federal soldiers fought in this two day battle. There were over 6300 registered reenactors for the Blue and Gray Alliance 150th Shiloh Battle Reenactment. That number also includes women and children, so probably 300-500 of that number were not actually soldiers. There were approx. 60 artillery pieces and too many cavalry to count. Clayton, who was in the thick of it all, told me that the Confederate reenactors outnumbered the Federals about 3 to 1. I was told that there were an estimated 35,000 spectators that attended the reenactment.

Historically, during the first day of battle, the Confederates had the upper hand. They made a surprise attack early on April 6, 1862 and battle raged all day, leaving many dead, wounded, and dying on the field by night fall. By the following morning, April 7, however, the Union army had received reinforcements and rallied to victory, albeit a costly one with 23,000 casualties. The Confederates eventually retreated from the field.

I ended up not attending Saturday's battle reenactment of the first day, but I did manage to make it to Sunday's fight, which was a reenactment of (what else?) the second day. I sat in the heat and sun with hundreds of other people behind yellow caution tape stretching from one end of the field to the other, all directly behind the Confederate artillery. From my vantage point, I was able to see most of the battle, including the final moments when those boys in blue advanced from the tree line, large United States flags waving at intervals along the immense column, and watched as they overtook the Confederate army and ended the battle.

As I sit here trying to gather my thoughts on all of this, I feel the tears well up and I'm overcome with emotion. The experience that I had was, cheesy as it sounds, life changing and powerful. It's hard to relive it.

The rumble of cannon: something to
cheer or contemplate? / CC Roger Smith
As I sat there feeling the vibrations of the artillery rattling my teeth, I was finally able to grasp just how terrifying this war was for these soldiers. The ground literally shook from the constant artillery bombardment, the smoke from the artillery pieces often obscured the view of the field, the pounding of hooves from the cavalry as they rode by in haste, the explosions of various sized gunfire. If I closed my eyes and aimed my ears at the field, I could get a fraction of a sense of a battlefield 150 years ago.

But that's not what makes me cry as I think about my experience. What was really most powerful were the reactions of the spectators around me - and not in a good way.

Whereas I came to this reenactment looking for a sense of meaning and a sense of understanding about this horrific war, most of the people around me came here for entertainment, for the sport. It puts a sour taste in my mouth now just thinking about it. The people around me only wanted a good show. Whenever the three artillery pieces directly in front of me either all fired at once or in quick succession, the crowd would clap and cheer.

Did you read what I just wrote? They clapped and cheered! I was more horrified at their reactions to this event than I was about my new understanding of war. I was more emotionally affected by their reactions than I was by the meaning I had gone there looking for.

These people were laughing, cheering, talking, clapping, and taking pictures like this was some high school football game. I honestly felt disgust. I was disgusted at them. I was disgusted at myself for being a part of it all.

I had this naive notion that everyone was there for the same reasons I was there. And when that naive bubble was popped, I was so incredibly hurt. I began to question everything.

When John called me and asked how my trip was, knowing I had looked forward to it for some time, I told him that, while it was overall a great trip, I was coming out the other side a changed person.

He listened quietly as I described what I've typed up above. He listened as I also described the women who, towards the end of the battle as the Federals finally broke the Confederate lines, shouted flippantly, "Where's Forrest when you need him?!" I told him about the horror I felt at it all, how I just couldn't believe what I experienced, and how I was still trying to understand it.

I went there to try to find meaning in that place and what happened there. I ended up gaining a better understanding about the way the people who attend these events think.

And it terrifies me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

From Another Era: Living in the Moment

I’m the child of Baby Boomers, born and bred in Ohio. Although I’ve since moved away, Ohio is and always will be home. The one thing that I always remember about springtime and Ohio is May 4th. All throughout high school and college, it seemed liked every spring, as the days inched closer and closer to May 4th, talk among teachers and parents would invariably drift towards Kent State and the memories of the terrible shootings that happened there. Growing up in Ohio, it's just a fact of live that everyone learns about Kent State. It is ingrained into state memory. There are Kent State alums all across the state, and it always seemed like there was one willing to share his/her experiences, even if it was several years before or after the shootings.

So, I always knew of Kent State. But I never understood it. The seriousness, the tension, the fear, all the different emotions that Kent State produced - the vivid memories of that moment in time, just never resonated with me, for we all know the ending. Knowing what we know now, it was just a bad situation all over. There were scared kids on both sides. Shots were fired somewhere, and basic survival instincts kicked in – the guardsmen fired on the crowd. It wasn’t until my senior year in college, while working on my senior thesis, that I finally understood the meaning of Kent State.

I was interviewing emeritus professor of history, Dan Calhoun, about the College of Wooster during the 1960s. We were talking about a wide range of subjects, from the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement, to religion and liberal arts education. And like most conversations about protest in Ohio, we drifted towards talking about Kent State. Professor Calhoun remembered the day, recalling that many students and faculty had skipped classes that day at Wooster, instead opting for a teach-in – a sort of free form discussion that students and faculty often held in the student union, discussing the pressing issues of the day. Calhoun related that he was actually speaking when news broke of the tragedy at Kent State.

“They are killing students at Kent State.” That was the first thing they heard.

That was it. They, the government, was shooting its own. They were shooting thier own students for protesting the war. When Professor Calhoun told me that line, I immediately understood. A wave of emotion swept over me. For the first time, I sensed the fears, the tension, and the terror that Kent State created. A million questions most have popped into the student and faculty’s heads, when they heard the news. Kent State became alive to me that day. It held meaning for the first time.

Thinking back to Kent State, I know there have been many other moments like it in history. Moments when terrible news breaks, something bad has just happened, and no one knows what is going on. I have lived through one myself – the September 11 terrorist attacks. It leads me to think back to what those moments might have been during the Civil War.

Firing on Fort Sumter – What did that mean to the folks in the moment? Civil war has come. American blood has been spilled by Americans. What is going to happen to the United States?

Lincoln’s been shot – What will happen to this newly settled peace?

Similarly, there are much smaller personal moments too, that can be interpreted at every battlefield. My best friend has been shot. I just saw my commander blown to pieces. I just killed another man. Moments of tragedy and triumph like the above mentioned are really what our sites are all about.