Thursday, September 27, 2012

Veritas: The Power of the Real

There's something about touching the actual thing, something about contacting the real that makes a distant world come immediately to life. There's an excitement about that moment when you see and touch something a piece of another world. A Thomas the Tank Engine character reminded me of this fact recently. Watch the young boy's face as he picks Stanley back up in a cornfield after his favorite toy travels to space and back:

Joy. The joy of meeting an old friend who has had a new experience.

There's power in that moment. There's awe. That feeling is an amazing one, when you realize what you hold in your hand. The young boy in the video feels the thrill of space in the very palm of his hand.

"...a mass of incandescent gas,
a gigantic nuclear furnace..."
It is the same sort of awe I felt when I opened an unassuming cardboard box earlier this year. Inside were two small plastic canisters with the intimidating label, "Caution - Radioactive Material." And safely tucked inside each, in a nest of cotton, was the real.

When the Trinity Test was preformed in July of 1945, the massive atomic fireball, the first ever massive atomic fireball sucked sand from the desert floor into the smouldering nuclear cauldron hovering momentarily over the New Mexico landscape. The sand melted and fell, a rain of molten green silicate. "Trinitite," was born, the curious byproduct of brilliant minds working toward fantastic and catastrophic ends. And inside each of the containers that arrived on my doorstep this past summer sits a sliver of Trinitite, a small piece of that greenish nuclear glass.

It's real. It's an actual piece of the past. It's amazing to hold that in your hand (don't worry, it's relatively low-yield in terms of radiation and mostly safe to handle as long as I don't butter my toast with it or something).

When I hold it in my hand, It's like I can feel the heat. It's like I can see the light of the growing fireball. I feel the doubt of Robert Oppenheimer as he questions the very morality of science. I can hear the echo of his words in my head: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

A photo of that sliver of nuclear glass doesn't do it justice. Pixels glowing on a screen aren't enough. Looking at the real thing with your own eyes, feeling it in your hand, turning it over between your fingers is immensely powerful.

Peale draws back the curtain on
his temple to the real. Part history,
part science but all proof of the past.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can never replace the sheer thrill and true meaning-making moment of seeing the real things. There can never be such a thing as a "virtual visitor center." We need places where we can see, touch and witness "the real." Charles Willson Peale realized that fact in Philadelphia in the 1780s, and Americans have been fascinated by the temples of "the real" ever since. The buildings we invest millions in at each of our sacred secular temples are shrines to the real evidence, they are the proof that the past actually happened.

Oftentimes, pixels on a smartphone can't do "the real" justice. Sometimes those things need to lie behind glass in visitor centers, on display to prove that the sadness of the past was a real, tangible thing. Sometimes we can hold those pieces of "the real" right in the palm of our own hands, mailed from a certified mineral supply company direct.

And sometimes we can pick them up in a nearby cornfield, a space traveler come back to earth and returned to his best friend.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Victim of Emancipation: Adams County Flustered

Lincoln ala Blondin walking the political
tightrope of Emancipation. / PD LOC
Republican stalwart newspaper The Adams Sentinel ran nothing in its folds hinting at the editor's elation over the Emancipation Proclamation in the days following the document's release. In a terse column, headed, "Proclamation of the President," ran the document, unadorned with either accolades or contempt. Elsewhere in the paper's folds, the news hovered back and forth over the fields around Sharpsburg and word of the lackadaisical pursuit of Lee's army into Virginia. The deep meaning of one of Lincoln's most momentous moments seemed to be lost on the Republicans of south-central Pennsylvania, as they eschewed the topic, pussyfooted around it and went out of their way to nearly ignore the document which sat in Washington City with its ink still drying.

The Democracy, on the other hand, was happy to make hay while the sun shone. "President Lincoln has issued a Proclamation setting free all the slaves in the States in rebellion on the first of January next," the Compiler susinctly noted to its readers. "We believe this movement," editor Henry J. Stahle continued, "to be highly inopportune, and will, we are confident, be questioned by all men not utterly Abolitionized." The folds of the paper then paraded forth extract after extract from Democratic newspapers chastising Lincoln's actions, comparing him, the New York World adeptly chided, to, "Blondin in the art of political balancing."

In article after article, for the next few weeks, the Compiler excoriated the Lincoln administration and its supporters for the bold action of Emancipation. Running under the headline, "FREEING THE NEGROES," Stahle printed the Proclamation in its entirety.

The Republicans must have felt the soft underbelly of election politics that the Emancipation Proclamation had left exposed. Across the white North, the majority of whose citizens made no pretense toward equality of the races, voters were headed to the polls that fall. Some, particularly Pennsylvanians, would cast their ballots less than a month after the document hit the street. Among those wishing to return to office was Gettysburgian and Pennsylvania College graduate Edward McPherson, trying to hold tight to his seat representing the 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Emancipation Proclamation became the perfect cudgel with which to beat McPherson. "VOTERS, REMEMBER!" the Compiler trumpeted, "that Edward McPherson voted with the Abolitionists for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia!" The paper swung again. "REMEMBER - that Edward McPherson voted with the Abolitionists for the Confiscation Bill, in pursuance of which President Lincoln has declared his purpose to liberate the negroes of the South!" Again and again the blows came down.

The Sentinel timidly replied with small jabs, claiming that the only souls who could support the Democratic tickets were, "every voter who loves Slavery more than he does the Union - who loves party more than his country."

The Sentinel did adeptly predict that, "the victories in Maryland, the emancipation proclamation, and the one which threatens traitors in the North with punishment when obstreperous, have worked [a] wondrous change. The future is darker and bloodier to the rebels than the past and present."

Democrats crowed over their victory in 1862.
"Abolitionism Rebuked!" the Compiler boasted.
Edward McPherson lost the election in a landslide victory for the Democracy. Early returns showed McPherson losing by over 450 votes in his home county alone. "We assume," The Sentinel lamented, that even, "the Army vote of the District will not overcome Mr. Coffroth's majority on the Home vote, and therefore concede the defeat of Mr. McPherson for Congress." For local Republicans, the root of the loss was quite clear. McPherson, "was pursued with steady and calculating malignity. His opinions were misrepresented, his record perverted, his motives misconstrued, his purest acts maligned, and everything said and done, which an artful foe could concoct to his injury."

But McPherson's record was not twisted all that much. His stand for the freedom of four million in bonds in the South were relatively consistent and unwavering. The Emancipation Proclamation had simply awoken an angry and racist sentiment within the American Democracy, prompting the Compiler at the bottom of one column to urge locals to, "VOTE THE WHITE MAN'S TICKET!"

Lincoln sold Edward McPherson's seat in the United States House of Representatives in a calculated gamble. Lincoln sold that seat and many like it with the simple stroke of a pen in September of 1862. In exchange, Lincoln took a step down the road toward freedom and equality. McPherson's seat was collateral damage in a war for freedom.

Like Lyndon Johnson did while sweeping his pen across a sheet of paper in the East Room of the White House in 1964 then glibly noting to his comrades that his party had, "lost the south for a generation," Lincoln was willing to take a political drubbing precisely for doing the right thing rather than the popular. Lincoln was willing to alienate pockets of the white North, to lose precious seats in the House or Senate and perhaps even cement himself as a devil of epic proportions in the eyes of American racist ideology precisely because it was the virtuous path and the path that fulfilled the true promise of the nation.

And afterall, Lincoln had, "made a solemn vow before God that if General Lee was driven back from Maryland I would crown the result by the declaration for freedom to the slaves."

Emancipation was right, not popular. And Lincoln was brave precisely because of that fact, not in spite of it.

So celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, don't simply commemorate it. It truly is a political gamble worth shouting for.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Four Days in Heaven Spending Four Days in Hell

The German Baptist Brethren Bible on the front table inside the sanctuary of the
Mumma Meetinghouse, 150 years after it sat there on the eve of the battle.

I spent four days this past weekend wallowing in the depths of hell. Around me swirled the maelstrom of battle, a spinning vortex of blood, death, destruction and loss. Outside the windows, every patch of ground is a reminder of the sacrifice and heartache.

If you squinted your eyes, or better yet closed them completely, you could see it all.

The Dunker Church (more accurately called the "Mumma Meetinghouse" or "German Baptist Brethren Meetinghouse) is a purely magical place, an amazing environment in which to weave tales of meaning for visitors.

Those tales were ones of fear and trepidation, as pacifists confronted the awful prospect of war. Those tales were ones of hope and heartache, as Emancipation came within a hair's breadth of freeing the men and women enslaved on Sharpsburg's landscape, but not quite close enough in 1863. Those tales were ones of horror and shock, as Civil War photos became portals to the past and the present.

I kept getting asked the question, over and over again, "aren't you tired?"

But the opposite was true. Each interaction with a visitor refreshed me, uplifted me and brought light to my step. By Monday, I could barely hobble out of bed and slide into my green and grey uniform. But the pain was a good one, the aches were almost therapeutic.

My hat / PD NPS Photo
I had forgotten the joy of seeing someone have that moment of new appreciation for a place, whether that place be old friend or new acquaintance.

All told, I spoke to the majority of the people who visited Sharpsburg this weekend and wandered onto the battlefield. The location was prime, the crowd flow was intense, but the opportunities for meanings were limitless. From the fight against slavery to the fight over secession, from smouldering Libya to the streets of New York, the Dunker Church became a time machine allowing all of us to view ourselves from wild perspectives and amazing heights.

Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel and you might get a glimpse at some of the meanings I shared with visitors.

Maryland, it turns out, was an amazing, violent, vibrant, frightening and befuddling place in 1862. It only takes a time machine to visit it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sharpsburg, Maryland: 150 Years Later

The battle this weekend would shine light
upon a nation and soak that same land in blood.
If you are somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region over this next weekend, are obsessed with studying and understanding the Civil War and aren't going to be trying your damnedest to be in Sharpsburg, Maryland this weekend, you might want to check your pulse.

I'll be there, as will many friends of the blog (including alum-author Jake, past guest blogger Vanessa Smiley and stellar interpreter Emmanuel Dabney from over at Interpretive Challenges), working to help visitors find deep meanings on the landscape.

So, stop by the Dunker Chruch and wave hello to me. And find my compatriots all over the park, connecting the battlefield of yesterday to the world of today.

Find out all the cool things happening this weekend over at the National Park Service's site.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Don't Get A Tour; Come Back Next June

A sign that can literally stop visitors in their
tracks. I've seen it happen nearly every Friday.
A friend of mine and former supervisor said something to me the other day. I deeply respect him; he taught me the very basics of interpretation. But his words shocked me. I still don't know exactly how to process them.

He said something like, "I saw you leading a tour on Friday with three visitors. It takes something to go out there when you know you're only going to get so few people. I respect you for it; I couldn't do it."

The most exciting sight in a National Park for me is a simple sign. Sometimes it's brown and mounted up on a high post. Sometimes it's low to the ground with a little magnetic slot for a time placard. Sometimes, like at Harpers Ferry, it's wooden and dangles from metal rings off of a mobile stand.

The signs read, in clear, plain letters, wherever they are, "Ranger Program Begins Here."

The soundtrack for today's post is
brought to you by the
Five Man Electric Band...
I have a timeslot on that particular sign. On Fridays all through the summer (and now into the fall) I've been doing experimental programming in the park, trying out and testing new techniques, honing my skills and in general staying fresh. I spend the rest of my week shackled to a desk, so getting out and talking to the public is a welcomed breath of fresh air, and makes me feel like a real Park Ranger and not some obscene pretender to the title.

But lately, my brown sign has been disappearing. Someone has been tucking it away behind the buildings. And thank god for the stalwart volunteers who, every time I call the information center on a Friday morning and remind them I'll be doing a tour, drag it back out from it's hiding place and slide the "11:00" tag into it's proper place.

And some well-meaning soul, by the next Monday morning, has dragged it back into hiding.

But why?

The answer is simple: it's not summer anymore. There are no more tours, or very few. And, I'd wager, the person dragging the sign behind the brick walls of the buildings is trying not to tease visitors or get their hopes up. That's a valiant reason, but is it really productive or simply sweeping a broader problem under the rug?

The Clemson / Virginia Tech report on effective National Park Service interpretation has been rattling around in my brain lately. Beyond its implications for the individual interpreter, the report released last month will hopefully have deep implications for management and program planning.

One of the key findings of the report is stark (emphasis added):

Because nearly all programs produce positive results and these data have the highest potential to be measured consistently, we recommend monitoring numbers of programs and attendees, as well as the proportion of scheduled programs that actually take place. These appear to be the most reliable measures of interpretive program health across parks.

Hide it under a bushel? No.
Why not let it shine?
The health of interpretation can be measured in the sheer number of personal services programs a site puts on the schedule.

So what's the health of interpretation after the college kids disappear from our parks in August? Many parks eviscerate their tour schedule. Many days, nary a personal services program is offered. And with the schedule go my favorite signs.

But why hide them?

What if we left the signs out? Might they work as amazingly powerful motivators?

For parks with limited or non-existent staffing, what types of conversations would they spark with visitors? When a visitor asks when the tour begins at the sign, imagine having to tell them that the park doesn't have enough in the budget to have enough staff to offer them a tour. What sort of righteous indignation (or meaningful letter begging a Congressman to increase that park's budget) might that encounter inspire?

And what about parks where interpreters are content not giving tours? What about those sites where there's enough staff, but ambition seems to have dried up? Might my favorite badge of honor become a deeply motivating mark of shame each time a visitor asks, "why aren't there any tours beginning at that sign today?" Might it move some rangers to step back out into the sunshine and help visitors find new meanings, even if it's only one or two on a program in late August or early September?

After all, they came here and they desperately want to care. Why make them wait until next June? Why not help them care today?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Defining Ourselves: What This War Was All About

For a few moments on one hot July afternoon, the future of the nation, of the very definition of
freedom, hung in the balance above this simple fence. Here white soldiers unknowingly defended a
black man's low slung stone wall, literally defending his property from the tide of an army
wishing to make him property himself. And as the straggling, defeated rebels wended their way
back across the field, the 111th New York and their fellow Federal comrades had not only defended
Abraham Brien's right to be free, but had advanced the very definition of freedom one giant leap
forward in the muggy July air.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It's All Good

The last year and a half has been fun, but unfortunately, I will not be returning to write for Interpreting the Civil War on a regular basis. I'll certainly be stopping by from time to time, but no guarantees.

Interpreting the Civil War will continue though. Check back every week for John Rudy's brain musings and thoughts. I know I will.