Updated Schedule

A couple of weeks ago I posted my summer schedule here, but since some events have been added and revised, I thought I’d give an updated schedule here.  Anyone interested and able to attend any of these is welcome!

May 21 – Talk and signing for the York (PA) Civil War Round Table
June 6 – Myself, Eric Wittenberg, and Mike Nugent will have a special booksigning for members of the Gettysburg Discussion Group at their muster, in the meeting room of the Holiday Inn from 5:00pm to 6:15pm.  Special GDG bookplates will be included with each book.
June 6 – The three of us will have a talk and signing at Gettysburg’s Gallery 30 from 6:30pm to 8:00pm.  30 York Street in Gettysburg, Pa.  This event is the National Release of our new book One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863Each book will feature special book plates for the event.
June 6 – Special “Book and a Beer” signing with the three of us at the Reliance Mine Saloon on Steinwehr Avenue in Gettysburg, beginning at 9:00pm.  We’ll have copies of both Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg and One Continuous Fight.  Each book purchased will feature a special Reliance Mine bookplate.
June 7 – The three of us will have a signing in the bookstore of the new Gettysburg Visitor Center from 10:00am to 12:00pm.  Taneytown Road, just south of the National Cemetery.
June 7 – The three of us will have a signing at the Gettysburg Gift Center on Steinwehr Avenue in Gettysburg from 1:00pm to 3:00pm.  Copies of both books available.
June 7 – We’ll have an evening signing at the Farnsworth House Bookstore on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg from 5:00pm to 7:00pm.  Both books available.
June 7 – We will again have a special signing at the Reliance Mine Saloon on Steinwehr Avenue in Gettysburg beginning at 9:00pm, with both books available and special bookplates.
June 8 – Mike Nugent and I will have a book signing at the American History Store at the corner of Steinwehr and Baltimore avenues in Gettysburg from 10:00am to 12:00pm.
June 19-22 – I’ll be assisting Eric Wittenberg at tours for the Civil War Education Association.  The program, titled “Clash of Cavalry in Virginia” will feature battlefield tours of Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station, and Trevilian Station, in addition to a visit to downtown Culpeper and the National Cemetery.  See here for information.  If you want to join us in a great and educational time, please come along!
June 29 – Signing at the Butternut&Blue table (with owner Jim McClean) at the annual Gettysburg Collectors Show, Allstar Complex along Rt. 15 just south of Gettysburg.  9:00am to 5:00pm.  Both books will be available.

July 2 – Presentation at the Custer Monument Dedication in Hunterstown PA at Felty Ridge.  Event is sponsored by the Hunterstown Preservation Society.  A booksigning will follow (I’ll have both books available with special bookplates for the event) with Mike Nugent.  Each book will be specially numbered and one of a limited edition for the dedication – and they can ONLY be purchased at this event.  The signing will be held on the front porch of the historic Grass Hotel in the center of town.  Go here for the schedule of the day’s events.
July 3 – Book signing, with Mike Nugent, and the Reenactment of the Battle of Hanover (June 30, 1863) in Hanover, Pa.  Each book will be specially numbered with bookplates for the event, and can only be purchased that day.  Sponsored by the Hanover Evening Sun and editor Marc Charisse.
July 24-27 – Eric Wittenberg and I will be leading an all-day bus tour of Jeb Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg for our buddy Ted Alexander’s Chambersburg Civil War Seminars program The Gettysburg Experience.   The weekend’s programs are not yet set in stone, but watch the website at the link above for more information and how to sign up.  I may also being leading a tour of Gen. John Buford’s July 1 defense at Gettysburg for the program, if it can be scheduled.  More information will be posted once it’s available.  We will have books available at this event as well.

Published in: on April 30, 2008 at 12:01 pm  Comments (1)  

“What Hath Kilpatrick Wrought” on Harry Smeltzer’s blog

Harry Smeltzer, on his Bull Runnings blog, has put up a couple terrific posts on the prodigial descendant line of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.  Some are familiar with his more famous descendants, but Harry has put together quite a recounting of all of his descendants and some extremely interesting stories about them to boot.  The first post is here, the second here.

I’ve known for years that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a direct descendant of Kilpatrick, and Cooper definitely has the “Little Kil” chromosomes.  One look at Anderson is like looking at a picture of the General – put some big sideburns and a uniform on the CNN anchor, and he’s Kilpatrick’s twin.

Check out Harry’s posts.  Interesting reading and you’ll learn a great deal – including the fact that one of those related to Kilpatrick’s descendants was born in one of the cottages atop Monterey – the very ground on which Kilpatrick fought Confederate General Richard Ewell’s teamsters the night of July 4, 1863 as the Rebels retreated following Gettysburg.  I didn’t know about this birth location until now, and it’s an amazing circle of fate – and one that I will mention every time I talk about the fight at Monterey Pass or give a tour of the ground.

Kudos to Harry for some terrific work.

Published in: on April 29, 2008 at 9:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Gettysburg trip recap

Last night I returned from my first visit to Gettysburg of the season.  This past weekend was the event called History Meets the Arts, and I had a couple of book signings scheduled around town.  Plus, it was my first opportunity to visit the new Gettysburg Visitor Center.

The weather couldn’t have been better from Thursday to Saturday.  When I arrived in town on Thursday around 6:30 pm, it was about 78 degrees – a bit warmer than at home here in northwestern PA.  Entering on Rt. 30 from the west, it’s always great making that ride through the First Day’s field and “saying hello” to the statue of Gen. John Buford.

I met up with my good friend Duane Siskey, who lives in town, and we had a couple of steaks for dinner at Hoss’s Restaurant.  We then made a couple trips around the battlefield before it got dark, and saw a beautiful sunset over South Mountain.  We went to our favorite haunt, the Reliance Mine Saloon, to toss back a couple cold ones and see some old friends.  One patron, at Duane’s urging, bought a copy of the book on Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg.

After breakfast on Friday morning, since Duane had to put a few hours in at work, I decided to go take a look at the new Visitor Center.  As promised here, I would post my thoughts on the new facility after I had a chance to take a look around.

I believe I have a pretty even-handed opinion about the new facility.  There’s lots to love about it, and lots to be unhappy about.  First, the buildings are simply world-class.  The “farm” style of both the VC and Cyclorama buildings fit into the landscape magnificently, and despite their size are actually quite unobtrusive.  They seem extremely well-built, and I noticed over the next two days that no matter where I was on the battlefield, I couldn’t see the buildings other than a bit from Little Round Top. 

When you walk in the main doors, everything is very impressive to the eye.  The construction is very high quality and the place is very inviting.  The display cases in the main lobby are nicely done, with explanatory plaques that were sorely lacking in the old VC.

Before checking out the museum, I decided to go right to the bookstore.  Well, I should say, they call the room the “bookstore” – in actuality, 2/3 of the store is taken up by shelves of those plastic guns, rubber swords, and bobbing Lincoln heads that everyone’s been hearing about.  They have certainly done their level best to present the public with a 21st-century tourist trap, lemme tell you.  You have to wade through all that crap in order to get to the other 1/3 of the “bookstore,” which actually contains the books.

Whereas the store in the old VC carried about 900 titles, there are less than 300 in this new store.  Instead of large bookshelves or “stacks” like the old VC (or the traditional bookstore), this one contains small cubicles of shelves.  There is a cubicle for each category of books, such as Gettysburg, Photography, Medicine, Northern, Southern, and Slavery.  The latter is right out front.  I don’t believe that the Gettysburg section contained more than a couple dozen titles, which consisted of the standards such as Coddington, Pfanz, Martin, etc.  There are precious few regimental histories anywhere in the store (although you’ll find them on the 20th Maine).  Duane had told me that the book on Stuart’s ride by Eric Wittenberg and myself was indeed in there, but it took me nearly 20 minutes to find it.  Instead of it being shelved in the Gettysburg section, I finally found it in the Southern section.  That’s right, the Southern section.  They had five copies there.  I took one up to the checkout to the man behind the cash register (and bless the fella, I think he was about 80 years old).  I told him I was the co-author of the book, and explained that perhaps it would be better to carry it in the Gettysburg section.  I explained that yes, it was about a southern commander (Jeb Stuart) – but the title is his “Controversial Ride to Gettysburg.”  The old VC, of course, carried it in the Gettysburg section.  After staring at me rather blankly for a while, he mumbled something about talking to management about it.  Sensing I wasn’t going to get further than that, I took three copies of the book and placed them on one of the Gettysburg shelves.  I made a mental note to later go back and see if I could talk with someone in charge about the placement of the book.  I decided to drop the idea of asking if he’d like me to sign any of them, since I had noticed that not a single one of any of the books in there were signed by authors.  The old VC loved when books were signed by the authors, and always placed a gold sticker on the front cover denoting them as such.  I guess it just struck me that no one managing this new bookstore would really care.

After noting that of the 100 or so people in the store, 90 were persuing the plasticware and only 10 the books, I decided to leave and check out the museum.  At the entrance to the theater, about 500 people (perhaps more) were waiting to get into the next show.  I walked into the entrance to the museum, but immediately ran into about another 100 folks (mostly children) who were pretty much blocking the museum entrance.  Looking ahead, I saw the corridor completely packed with people.  I immediately dropped the idea of trying to fight my way through it.  Therefore, I was only able to see the opening section of the museum, which was devoted to the “Causes of the War” and the slavery issue.  Once again, I’d have to go back at a time when there was less people in order to make my way through the museum.

I decided to leave the building via the Food Court section.  Walking through it, which was literally packed with folks drinking $4 cups of pop and lots of pizza, etc., I wondered what effect it was having on the merchants back in town.  I had easily noted that on Thursday evening and this particular morning, the Steinwehr Avenue section of town was virtually deserted.  Usually, by 9am on the Friday of this weekend, you can’t find a place to park there.  This day, however, I think I only saw about 5 vehicles parked along Steinwehr.

As I walked out of the building, more and more buses were dropping off school children.  All the available parking lots were simply packed.  As many spaces as there are available, I can imagine that all the lots will be completely full most of the summer – and I can only imagine what it will be like during the July anniversary.

I got back in my car and drove the windy road back out towards Taneytown Road, that “buzzing” of being around thousands of people in a confined space still in my head.

I still need to see the rest of the museum, which I hear is fantastically well done, but I’d seen enough to form some concrete first impressions of the new facility.  First, as I mentioned earlier, the place is done on a world-class scale.  It definitely fulfills a need that the battlefield has long had… a modern facility to handle the visitors, and an educational atmosphere to acquaint the casual tourist with the war in general and the battle in particular.  Plus, it keeps the young folks interested.  The museum, the theater, the displays, and the tourist junk all gets them wide-eyed I’m sure.  Is it a place I would take a novice friend or my children?  You betcha.  And I know they would get much more out of it than they would the old facility.

Additionally, this new facility, off the main battlefield and unobtrusive to the landscape, will allow the Cemetery Ridge location of the old buildings to be reclaimed.  Not restored mind you – that location has been irreparably damaged by the old buildings, parking lots, and the fact that the area served as the town dump for many years after the battle – but it will be wonderful to see everything gone from there one day.  I look forward to the day when I can stand at the Zeigler Grove area and look east toward the Leister farmhouse and see nothing in between but grass and trees.

However, it is abundantly clear that the new facility will not be a constant haunt for the experienced visitor.  Simply put, there’s really nothing there for you after your initial visit.  You can find every book in the bookstore somewhere else (at at a better price).  You can probably even find bobbing Lincoln heads somewhere in town, too.   You’ll feed yourselves and your 2.4 kids lunch there only if convenient (checking the price list, I quickly calculated that lunch for a family of four will run you about $35 and up) so there are cheaper eats in town.  I didn’t sample any food there, but I seriously doubt their pizza rivals Tommy’s.  And I had no burning desires to purchase $2.50 bottles of water, either.

In summation, the battlefield has (and will) immensely benefit from the new VC due to the relocation.  The casual tourist now has a world-class facility to visit, see wonderfully displayed artifacts (though there’s only about 1/10 the items of the old museum) and a top-notch educational facility. 

The experienced Gettysburg visitor/student has, well, the battlefield.  And thank goodness for that – and Cemetery Ridge will only get better when the old buildings are razed and the asphalt torn up.

It remains to be seen, however, how the new facility (in particular the Food Court) will affect the town’s businesses.  Throughout the entire weekend, I saw far fewer people in town.  Fewer people in the stores, fewer patrons in the eating establishments.  The evenings, however, were very busy in town (the new VC closes its doors at 6pm).  A casual survey of a few business owners confirmed that although there were as many people around this weekend as usual – and the weather was beautiful to boot – there were far fewer customers for them during the daytime hours.  You couldn’t get a hotel reservation anywhere in or near town this weekend, but you could find an empty table in any of the restaurants and bars.  I don’t think that bodes well for the town merchants.

During my next visit next month or perhaps in June, I will check out the new museum and post my thoughts on it.  It wouldn’t be fair to do so until I’ve had a chance to take a good look at it.  But it’s apparent to me now that the only thing that would draw me back to the place would be to see something I hadn’t yet seen.

By the way, don’t expect to see any type of living history on the grounds of the new facility.  Conversations over the weekend with reenactor friends of mine revealed that they weren’t treated too kindly when they showed up there in their garb.  A couple of them (and this is second-hand information, mind you) were apparently treated a bit rudely by one of the persons behind the Information counter.  The reenactors were made to feel (according to them) rather unwelcome.  I don’t take sides on this particular issue either way – I participate in living history, but I probably wouldn’t have gone to the new facility in my uniform anyway.  And there are plenty of opportunities for living history presentations on the battlefield where they properly belong anyway.  However, the new VC is a private-public partnership managed by private companies and concerns, and they may have little time for the reenacting segment of all this.  I guess my advice would be if you’re a reenactor, leave your garb behind if you visit the new VC.  Otherwise, you may get some unwelcome looks and stares from the staff.  This is only my impression, not my personal experience.  But I think it needs to be said.

I heartily encourage everyone to visit the facility if you haven’t already.  And if you or anyone hasn’t been to Gettysburg in a long time or at all, it’s mandatory you start there.  After that, it will be up to each person to decide for him/herself if there’s any need to visit again.

But if you plan on eating there, bring lots of cash.

That afternoon, I had a very nice time at my books signings at the National Civil War Museum (formerly the Wax Museum) and the Farnsworth House Bookstore.  At the former, I was with Licensed Battlefield Guide George Newton, another Savas-Beatie author.  His book Silent Sentinels is a terrific tome on the artillery on the field.  Pick this book up sometime, you’ll enjoy it immensely.  I signed about 8 books there, and two folks brought their copies in for me to sign.

I headed home after lunch on Sunday, but got to spend quality time over the weekend with many friends – Duane, Dave and Carol Moore, Stan O’Donnell, and the regulars of the Reliance Mine.  I also spent more time on the field during this trip than I did of all my trips last year combined, and it was great.  The weather was gorgeous for the middle of April and couldn’t have been better for battlefield stomping.  As usual, the ride home left me anxiously awaiting the next visit.

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 4:31 pm  Comments (4)  

It may be sunny, may be cloudy, it might rain, and it might not…

I’ve always had a secret desire to “do the weather” on TV – you know, stand in front of that blue screen and point and gesture here and there.  That would be very cool.

Well, it looks as though I might have a chance to appear on The Weather Channel on a TV near you…

Except I won’t be showing you where the next big storm is coming from.  Instead, I may get a chance to indulge the Civil War passion on the channel – that’s right, a Civil War related show on The Weather Channel.  As Eric posted yesterday, we’ve been asked by a staff researcher of the station to provide information for one of their upcoming shows in the How Weather Changed History series.  The show will focus on how weather affected the campaign and battle of Gettysburg, and we’ve been told that we will be interviewed on camera for it. 

Yesterday when I spoke with the researcher, Ashley Saluga, we had a nice talk for about a half hour.  I gave her information about Prof. Michael Jacobs, an instructor at the time at the Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College).  For decades, Jacobs kept detailed records on the daily weather in Gettysburg.  I have copies of those and have passed them on to her.  Also of special interest to her was the weather during the 10 days of Lee’s retreat from the field after the battle, and our new book One Continuous Fight contains much primary-account detail of the affects of the weather.  That book will be featured somewhat for the show, and I’m hoping we can mention our first collaboration Plenty of Blame to Go Around on Jeb Stuart’s ride to Pennsylvania, since that book discusses the prevailing weather conditions as well.

Eric and I will post more on our respective blogs when we know more of the details.  Ashley informed me that we’ll be doing the filming sometime this summer.  I hope it’s done in their studios – maybe at some point I’ll have the nerve to run over to one of their blue screens and start doing an impromtu weather forecast.  It could be an interview for a job!  Move over, Jim Cantore!  (Okay, actually I’d be happy if I could just get one of those way cool Weather Channel jackets and a fisherman’s hat.)

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 10:18 am  Comments (1)  

More on Gettysburg Visitor Center Bookstore

In talking with friend Dwayne Siskey, who lives in Gettysburg, I’ve learned a bit more about the bookstore in the new Gettysburg Visitor Center.  He was told during a recent visit that they haven’t ordered any new books in the last 2 or 3 months (I guess since the store was initially stocked) and that they don’t plan to order any more for a while.  I guess that means my new one (which will be out next month) may not be ordered anytime soon, or at all.  Our publisher has been contacting the store to set up a signing this summer, but is getting no response.  I don’t even know if they carry my first book.  They don’t carry my good friend Scott Mingus’ books, and this seems to confirm all that I’ve heard – that the store carries about half the titles of the old store.  Newt Gingrich’s alternative fiction is, however, stocked in the store.

I’ll be visiting myself this Friday morning on my first trip to Gettysburg this season, and I’ll post a full report on the new Visitor Center here.  As for the bookstore, it indeed seems that inventory has been designed to cater to the masses, not the specialized historian by any means. 

All of which leaves the door wide open for the bookstores at the Farnsworth House, Gallery 30, the Antique Center, the Gettysburg Gift Center, the Habitat Gift Center, and a possible new stand-alone bookstore that might be opened by Eastern National (which ran the old Visitor Center bookstore).

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 9:45 am  Comments (9)  

Don’t like what I’m hearing…

…about the bookstore in the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg.

Last night, I spoke with a couple good friends who live in town, one of whom visited the new VC last during the open house for locals.  Overall, he was very impressed with the facility, commenting that it reminded him of the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg Pa.  Most of his comments were positive.

However, when he gave his impressions of the bookstore therein, I didn’t like what I heard.  He estimated that there were only about half the titles carried in the new store compared to the old bookstore.  In addition, he noticed that “alternative history” titles are now being carried – like Newt Gingrich’s historical fiction book about Gettysburg.  In the old bookstore, alternative fiction was NOT offered.  There used to be a committee of Park Rangers who had to approve each new book, which helped protect the public from books of lesser quality – and alternative-type fictional works were never permitted.  The old VC bookstore was, in fact, about the only place in town that you didn’t find such works.

Now that Event Network is running the show there, apparently anything that sells is fine.  I assume that there is no longer any say in the matter by the Rangers or any other such approval committee.  It’s more about marketing than history, it seems, and if it’ll sell it gets on the shelf.

Lovely.

Hey, maybe we’ll be able to buy that book from the mid-90s or so, that explored what may have happened at Gettysburg had Lee’s army been armed with submachine guns!

Or that video from a few years ago (I think it was called The Confederate States of America) which was based on the idea of the south having won the war, and what it would be like to have two separate countries now.

I don’t think this bodes well for the VC bookstore.  I know, I know, everything eventually “must” bow to marketing pressure.  And they have to make money.  Yeah, I get it.  But Visitor Center bookstores have always been the last bastion for good historical non-fiction works, and now it seems as if this private-public partnership venture has opened the door to placing more importance on the bottom line.  At the Antietam bookstore, you won’t find books about who would have won the battle if McClellan had tanks (heck, he probably still would have lost!) and there aren’t any novels about the war had Jackson lived to be found in the Chancellorsville VC bookstore.  Since I hear Antietam is slated for a new VC in the near future, maybe that will change, and others are down the road.

As I posted previously, I’m reserving judgment on all of this until I get to visit the new facility myself next Friday.  But I don’t like some things I’m hearing about the bookstore.  I’m disappointed in how this management partnership is affecting some things, although I’ll wait until I can see it for myself.

Published in: on April 11, 2008 at 9:59 am  Comments (9)  

A nice plug

Duane Siskey, one of my best buds and a lucky sonofagun who lives in Gettysburg, recently gave our upcoming book on the Gettysburg retreat a nice plug on his blog.  See it here.  Duane recently got his hands on a top-secret copy (sshh!) of the editing galley of the book, which had been previously given to a local bookseller.  Duane has been trying to blackmail us by threatening to sell it on eBay.  Silly boy.  I informed him that if he does, we’ll have to call in a couple of zips from Sicily to come over and take care of him.  Anyway, check out his very nice post.  Duane went along with us on our final run-through of the retreat routes for the driving tour in the book, and he was a huge help to us by discovering a local historian who had some great material for us to use in the book.

Published in: on April 11, 2008 at 12:30 am  Comments (1)  

April 9, 1863 – Appomattox Surrender

Today is, of course, the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.”

I don’t believe Robert E. Lee could have summed up those previous four years any simpler (or more apropos) in once sentence than that, and I’ve always detected quite a sense of exhaustion and relief in those words.

143 years ago today, this Nation was one large step closer to becoming one again.

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)  

Gettysburg Visitor Center Anticipation

When you’re used to something, when your “environment” becomes comfortable, anything that changes about it can be both upsetting and exciting.  This applies to a lot of things – home, work, family life – but in this case, I have those feelings regarding the new Visitor Center at Gettysburg, which is opening to the public next week.

For all my visits to Gettysburg, my first stop had been the old Visitor Center (Rosensteel building).  Most times, I hardly really needed to go in there… heck, I’ve seen every weapon on display in there a million times (I probably can run the serial numbers of the revolvers off by heart) and visits in the bookstore had me looking around for about an hour at books I either already have or don’t need.  The only time I’d buy any would be when an interesting new one came out.  I always liked to buy books in the VC bookstore because there was some feeling for me of “buying it at the Park.”  I really didn’t have any loyalty to Eastern National (which ran the bookstore) but it just felt “familiar” to buy there.

But a trip to Gettysburg just wouldn’t be complete without going into the VC.   I’d come out of there with no new books, didn’t see a display I wasn’t already intimately familiar with, didn’t really experience anything new.  But stopping in was a tradition for me as important as taking at least one quiet stroll through the National Cemetery at dusk each visit.  If I came home without doing either of those, I’d feel like I missed something.

I’ll be making my first trip to Gettysburg next weekend for the History Meets the Arts event.  I have a few book signings around town I have to do, but I’ve always enjoyed this particular weekend.  Spring has usually sprung, it’s usually my first visit after a long cold winter, and seeing old friends and taking in the sights charges my batteries up for the season.  I live about three hours northwest of Gettysburg and when the weather starts getting nicer about this time of year, one of the things I anticipate is that first trip for History Meets the Arts.

With the opening of the new VC, this trip, of course, will be entirely different compared to decades of early spring visits for me.  I’ve been watching the progress of the construction of the buildings over the past year during my visits, and I even got a sneek peak at the restoration of the Cyclorama painting last year with some close Ranger friends of mine.  But it’s no longer familiar – giving me those feelings of change and anticipation.  There’ll be no more trips into the old VC… hearing those sounds of young children running around among the displays, that voice on the PA system announcing times for the showing of the good ol’ Electric Map, the smell of the bookstore, and the walk across the road to the cemetery.

Yet, I’m very excited about the new facility.  Regardless how homey and familiar the old place was, it’s high time Gettysburg gets new digs.  The old place was ruining the artifacts, and the horribly-designed Cyc building was ruining the painting (and wasn’t even large enough to display it all).  People will (and have begun to) find all sorts of things to criticize about the new facility, but besides the reclamation of much of the battlefield landscape, I don’t think anything more wonderful could have taken place at Gettysburg than the construction of these new facilities.  The artifacts will now be properly preserved and displayed, the bookstore promises to be bigger and better, and the research facilities are reportedly world-class.

Next Friday, when I walk up to the front door of the new place, I’ll have to take a deep breath.  All that’s familiar will now be new.  I’ll walk around inside like a little kid in a brand-new school… nervous, unsure, but hoping I “fit in.”  Honestly, I can’t wait.

Eventually, too, once the old buildings are razed and the grounds reclamed as much as possible, that too will be an enormous change.  When the old National Tower was taken down a number of years back, the new vista took a while getting used to.  When you’re used to seeing that stupid thing in the sky (and even using it as a landmark when you’re at places like East Cavalry Field, etc.) it took a while getting used to not seeing it anymore.  The taking down of the buildings and elimination of the parking lots is going to take a while to get used to as well.  Not seeing the old VC complex on the right when one drives up Hancock Avenue will be quite a change to the senses for a long time.

For a while, folks will criticize some things about the new place.  Most, I think, will fall in love with it like they had the old.  Let’s also see how our children – the future of the study of our history – react.  If the snazzy new theater draws them into the aura of Gettysburg – the Civil War – our Nation’s sanguinary struggle with itself – then it has accomplished its goal.  If they marvel over some of the artifacts and displays like they do their iPods and cell phones, then maybe we’ve captured something inside of them that they’ll hang onto as adults.  Kids in the future won’t know what it was like to walk into “our” old Visitor Center, but they’ll have this new one as their own. 

So for the next week or so, I’ll look forward to the trip with nervousness, anticipation, and hope.  And I’m sure that once I have a chance to check the place out and think about it, at some point (hopefully sooner rather than later) I’ll feel “home” again.  After all, it’s all for the veterans who gave their last full devotion, for the preservation of the ground upon which many spent and lost their youth, and for our kids that must carry on after us.

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 10:22 am  Comments (2)  

A Tragedy at Home

My friends who know me are aware that I live in Brockway, Pennsylvania, a small rural community of about 2300 people in Western Pennsylvania.  By now, probably many of you have seen the national news coverage of the horrific house fire we had here in town earlier this week.  It has put our little community on the national scene at least for a time – and not in the way we would have wished, to be sure.

Douglas Peterson, father, grandfather, and greatgrandfather of 9 of the 10 people who lost their lives in that fire is a friend of mine and many in our community.  I’m an insurance broker, and Doug has been a client of mine since I started my agency 20 years ago.  I see him often, and I don’t believe I have ever seen him that he didn’t always have a smile on his face.  He’s one of those “sweet” guys – always smiling, always happy, always has a kind word for everyone.  Those people are very rare, and you always know them when you see them.

Needless to say, the loss of this large family has been unbearable for Doug, his surviving family members and friends, and our town at large.  Just about all those kids that were lost were spread out among several of the grades in the local school.  And like the news keeps pointing out, we’re a very small town here – the kind where everyone knows everyone.  Of course, that’s good and bad… bad that just about everyone knows your business and we all hear everything about everyone else.  You know the type of town – small, close knit.  News travels fast.  But it’s good in the way that when a tragedy strikes like this, you quickly find out just how many friends you really have.  Everyone pulls together to help others out.  All of our responders – the fire fighters, the ambulance personnel, the fire police, etc., are all volunteers.  They do it because they like helping people.  Responders here leave their job to fight fires and run the ambulance, and I can tell you that our operations are second to none.  Brockway’s responders could be a model for any city, large or small.

That fire was so fast, so hot, that it was impossible for the responders to have done more than they could.  For Doug Peterson, it’s a blessing amongst a tragedy that he has his son, a granddaughter, and several other family members still with him.  Now they will be his strength, as will his many friends in this community.  And he will need them, just like we need him – it will be a long while before he realizes the latter.

Today, there is a viewing and memorial service in the auditorium of our Brockway High School.  It was originally planned to run from 2-4pm and 7-9pm today, but the enormously long line of folks standing outside the school quickly scrapped that idea – they’re going to keep it continuously open as long as folks want to come.  And, they’re coming.  I rode by twice today and both times the line was about 400 feet long, with probably that many people in it.  My wife and I plan to go later tonite, when she gets off work.  All we can do is stand in line and wait our turn.

Since shortly after the fire, there have been multitudes of those “satellite trucks” from the media all over town.  It’s as if Hollywood descended on our little community, like watching that footage of how this happens when there’s a big court case or something going on with a celebrity.  From what I’ve heard, Brockway now has the distinction of suffering the largest loss of life in a house fire in the history of Pennsylvania.  That’s certainly a record we would have preferred never setting.

The survivors of the Peterson family will eventually heal some from this disaster, as will their close friends and the town.  But we will certainly never get over it.  The family didn’t have much, but they did the best with what they had.  The investigators are looking at the scenario of one or more space heaters causing this fire, since the natural gas had been shut off from the Peterson home since May of 2005 – nearly three years.  I can’t help but think maybe this can serve as a bit of a wake-up call for others in the same situation… if the gas and/or other utilities are shut off at a home because a family can’t afford it, someone (maybe local or county officials) could check on that family to see how they’re heating their home.  This particular home was a large, 2-story dwelling, and it would have taken a lot of space heaters to make it habitable considering the often-brutal winters we get here in Western Pennsylvania.  There are assistance programs available in cases like this, and maybe the next such tragedy could be avoided.  When things calm down some, perhaps this should be the subject of discussion both here and across the country.  There are probably thousands of other families in a similar situation.

Soon the satellite trucks will move on to the next story, and folks around here in our little town will get on with their lives.  The Petersons have a lot of healing to do, and their friends here will help them get through it.  Everyone will talk about this for years to come, of course, and we will never forget this tragedy that befell our community and one of its nicest families.  We lost infants, mothers, brothers, sisters… and Douglas Peterson Sr. most certainly lost much of himself.

There’s a lot of tragedy going on in this world, we all have our own problems, and the news is so often not good.  But if you find it in your heart, please take a moment to throw a prayer out to one of our town’s families if you’re so inclined.  I’ve always believed a lot of quiet prayers makes a big noise in Heaven.

We could use it.  Thanks.

Published in: on April 6, 2008 at 4:42 pm  Comments (4)