Hah. Fooled you.
Thought this post was going to be about my replacing my regular, crappy old DVD version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedic classic western Blazing Saddles, didn’t you? Well, it isn’t. I just happen to love the above line, spoken in frustration by one of my all-time fave character actors, Slim Pickens, in that movie as he rides up to the “toll booth” placed by the good guys to slow down his column. Actually, I don’t know of a Special New and Improved Anniversary Silver Gold edition of this DVD having been release recently, but I’m sure one will be. And I won’t buy it. They can’t fool me again – I’m too smart for them now. I will be happy just watching my crappy old regular disc over and over, thank you very much. Unless the new one has some really neat packaging…
No, this post is about this past weekend’s trip to Gettysburg, and some very interesting things (at least to me!) that happened. As I previously posted, on Friday I traveled to the Hallowed Ground for the final time this year, mainly to attend two books signings I had scheduled, and also to take in the Remembrance Day festivities.
I arrived in town on Friday, and went to the GNMP library where my good friend, Park Ranger John Heiser, showed me the microfilms of the Gettysburg Compiler newspaper they have on file. Since I’m doing an article on the June 26, 1863 action at Gettysburg, I wanted to find a 1905 newspaper article I’d heard about written by a member of Capt. Robert Bell’s Cavalry. Bell’s Cavalry clashed with Lige White’s 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry that day, and this particular article turned out to be a wealth of information on the action as well as the death of one of Bell’s troopers, Pvt. George Sandoe. I transcribed the article, put a little money in the Park kitty, and said my goodbyes to John until next spring. It’s always great seeing him, and he has been a wonderful help to me over the years.
Afterwards I met up with my very good friends Steve Basic and Duane Siskey, two fellows who are like brothers to me. We got some dinner, then spent some quality time at the Reliance Mine Saloon along with buddy Dr. Dave Moore, at whose home I stay when in town. Dave and his wife Carol are very generous in allowing me to stay whenever I’m in town.
On Saturday, we watched the parade through town – always quite a sight. The parade seemed very large this year with an enormous amount of reenactors. Over the past couple years, though, I can’t watch it without thinking of Brian Pohanka, who always proudly led his 5th New York Infantry Zouaves in the march. It just hasn’t been the same since he passed away.
My book signing was at the Gettysburg Gift Center on Steinwehr Avenue from 2pm-5pm, where I was with my old friend Ed Longacre. Ed is a prolific writer, and has written dozens of books and articles, mostly on Civil War cavalry subjects. That day, however, he surprised me when he told me that after his next book (about the first few weeks of the Civil War) he’s getting out of the Civil War writing biz altogether. He is going to begin writing exclusively about WWII subjects. He told me of his first project, which sounds quite interesting – a book about a little-known battle toward the end of the war, one in which his father’s unit participated. I anticipate seeing what that one will be.
The signing went very well, and it was enjoyable talking to the folks who came by. That evening after dinner our group went to the National Cemetery for the beautiful Illumination consisting of some 3600 candles placed at each grave and along the cemetery paths. Walking among the graves one can’t help but ponder the end result of war, and the contrasting peacefulness one feels for those who quietly sleep.
On Sunday morning at 10am I was back at the Gift Center for the signing, and met up with a pair of reenactors with the 6th New York Cavalry with whom I’d spoke the night before at the Mine. They’re a terrific group of guys who are very passionate about their portrayals. I also was able to meet a guy with whom I’d enchanged emails regarding Col. (later BG and MG) Thomas Devin, the officer that I portray. This fellow’s name was Devine, and he may be a collateral relative of Devin.
Just when I was scheduled to finish my signing, author Jeff Shaara appeared for his. My one book pales in comparison to the mountain of books he’s written since his initial Gods and Generals. The line of people waiting for him to sign stretched out the door, whereas I signed perhaps 20 books all weekend. God bless him, though. The majority of folks want their history in an entertaining form, which he provides. I’ve never been able to get used to his style of writing (lots of passive voice, broken sentences, atrocious grammar, all of which give me a headache as I try to read it) but you can’t argue with the fact that his books sell. I only own his G&G and Last Full Measure. I’ve only read about 10 pages of the latter, as I went cross-eyed by that time trying to get through the writing style.
That afternoon (Sunday) my pards and I were able to spend a couple hours on the battlefield, then we went to see the ceremonies in the National Cemetery. The keynote speaker was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Brokaw’s speech, which was a mixture of observations about the Civil War, the current state of unrest, and human nature, was very well done. I enjoyed it very much, as did the rest of the crowd. Brokaw’s comments were very non-partisan. I especially liked his observation about the new Democratic Congress – stating that it would be a mistake for the Democrats to think they now have a blank-slate mandate to shake up government, and they will face the same high price in 2 years if they don’t learn the lesson the Republicans were just taught. I couldn’t agree more.
Watching Jim Getty, as Abe Lincoln, deliver the Gettysburg Address capped off the ceremonies. I love watching him do that year after year, and it seems even more special each year. I don’t think Brokaw had ever seen Getty do that – after Getty was done saying the speech from memory, in that great Kentucky Lincoln voice, Brokaw was smiling from ear to ear.
Afterwards I met up with my good friend Dean Schultz, truly the “Dean” of all things Gettysburg. Dean has forgotten more about the battle, troop movements, and locations of anything and everything than the rest of us will ever know. Dean showed me copies of over 100 letters written by Capt. Robert Bell, which have only just come to light. I have copies coming soon – which will prove to be an incredible source for the article I mentioned earlier, as well as the three-volume work on all cavalry operations during the Gettysburg Campaign that Eric Wittenberg and I are working on. More on this topic later.
And, this weekend, I had only just learned of the destruction of Bell’s home just north of Gettysburg. Built in the late 1700’s (with the barn still there, too), the home and barn was torn down this summer to make way for the new Adams County Prison. I didn’t know of its existence until now, so I never got a chance to look the place over or take pictures. In return for tearing down the property, the Prison had to promise to name the new road there “Major Bell Lane.” Some consolation.
So, in addition to being a pleasurable last weekend in Gettysburg for this season, it also turned out to be a good working weekend as well. I made several new friends and contacts, and now I’ll wait for spring when I can return again. If the Boss (read that – wife) lets me this winter, maybe for the first time in my life I’ll get to see the battlefield blanketed with snow…
Hey, perhaps I’d have a better shot if I promise not to buy the new edition of the Blazing Saddles DVD when it comes out!