Collecting people

Published: May 19th 2010
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AP US History

Road trip

Eisenhower National Historic SiteEisenhower National Historic SiteEisenhower National Historic Site

Ike and Mamie's retirement home in Gettsyburg, PA
One of the fun parts of roadtripping is collecting people…well, not quite actually collecting them but collecting vignettes of the folks you meet on the road. I guess I have to admit to a certain amount of voyeurism as we travel as I do enjoy people watching and, frankly, listening in on conversations from time to time.

Yesterday morning at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center there were masses of high school students on the obligatory field trip, filling out their requisite class survey forms while leaning on each other’s backs, trying to be uber-cool with each other, and just generally being teenagers. Some comments overhead…

“I didn’t know Jefferson Davis was President of the US... Dummy, it means President of the Confederacy.”

“Eew, can you imagine being operated on with that? Did they have drugs back then?”...while looking at a lethal looking knife in a hospital exhibit.

“Whoa, he was my age…” when looking at an exhibit of a young Confederate infantryman.

Our guide yesterday, John Krepps, was marvelous, and you wonder how he came by his knowledge of the Civil War. There wasn’t anything he didn’t know and in his little fanny pack were stuffed all
It wouldn't be a road trip with flower pixIt wouldn't be a road trip with flower pixIt wouldn't be a road trip with flower pix

Someone at the Antietam Visitor's Center has a real green thumb
sorts of goodies - firing pins from cannons, bullet shells (three lines for the Feds, two lines for the Rebs), cannon ball fragments, photos of the generals, etc. He told us about taking the test to be a guide - it sounded as arduous as the infamous London taxi cab driver test. He said he has been a fan of Civil War history for decades and studied for years to pass the test. He’s a home town boy and sprinkled his anecdotes with local color. He just exuded fascination with the Civil War and you felt that you were holding him back if you didn’t ask enough questions. I did my librarian-like best to flood him with questions and he always came back with a twinkle and “That’s a good question” and then proceeded to tell me more than I thought any one person could know (yes, that’s the way to a librarian’s heart).

We had some colorful folks at breakfast this morning in our B&B. Last night when we checked into the Doubleday Inn we met Terry and Janey from Hickory, NC - he’s retired Navy and she’s…well, I don’t know quite how to describe her. I know a lot about her mother (a perfect Southern lady), Terry’s mother (not a perfect Southern lady), the town she grew up (she was related to everyone in town so she had to move away to find someone to marry), and that she is related to J.E.B. Stuart, which apparently is quite a feather in your cap if you’re from Mississippi. But at breakfast this morning the real deal came out…a brother and sister, from Phoenix and Seattle respectively, who…yes, here it is…had ancestors that came over on the Mayflower and were related to Robert E. Lee (I later learned that’s not such a big deal in the South since “everyone” is related to the man.) I love letting the conversation flow around me at a breakfast table in a B&B and flow it did this morning.

We certainly had the A team for a guide yesterday, today not so much. We set off to see Eisenhower’s farm after breakfast this morning - cold, grey, rainy - and Ranger Dave started off the introductory session but seemed to have difficulty remembering where he was in the narrative. Ranger Sam inside the house was practiced and polished in his presentation…and we saw plenty of Mamie Eisenhower pink. It brought back memories of Sunday lunch at my mother’s maiden cousins Delphine and Agnes Godbout in Jackson Heights, Queens when we were growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. Both the sisters were big fans of Mamie Eisenhower and always trotted out the “Mamie Eisenhower pink” tablecloth and napkins for Sunday lunch - now I know where the color comes from. As a child, these lunches were torturous - sitting on a real horsehair sofa trying to stop from itching, having to “behave” at the lunch table or else face a strong scold from Delphine - but then sometimes Agnes would slip you a sweet in the kitchen. The Eisenhower house was classic 1950’s - ashtrays, TV tables for dinner, green and pink tile in the bathrooms, and a Sunbeam Mixmaster that looked about the vintage of mine.

We meandered down the country roads of Maryland and West Virginia to Antietam and Harpers Ferry in the afternoon, as the weather began to clear a bit but still very cool. Antietam - the bloodiest single day battle on American soil - 125,000 soldiers began the day and 23,000 were casualties by the end of the day - it reeked of the same pathos as Gettysburg and yet without any definitive conclusion for the North or South. Ranger Ed got so wound up in his narrative that he kept jumping around from one end of the battle to another. One of the things that was fascinating was that President Lincoln seemed to change his commander of the Army of the Potomac with alacrity - nearly every month in the last half of 1862 - McClellan even managed to get fired twice. By the time we found Harpers Ferry it was late afternoon and colder and greyer than ever so we shacked up in a B&B - the only guests since this is still off season - and will visit the town tomorrow.


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