Anniversaries, or How the Battle of Gettysburg Changed My Life

Gettysburg. Photo by Flickr user Andy_Myers_Esq. Used courtesy of a Creative Commons attribution license.
Gettysburg. Photo by Flickr user Andy_Myers_Esq. Used courtesy of a Creative Commons attribution license.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863. My Twitter stream has been full of articles and photos from the commemorative events, which has me full of nostalgia -- for as odd as it seems to say, the battle that was  pivotal to the Civil War is actually also a fairly significant milestone in my own life.


Here's the story:

When I was a junior in high school, a group of students from my AP American History class were being picked to attend a week-long summer program at Gettysburg College called the Civil War Institute. I was familiar with it through a teacher who was a family friend, and -- as I was already a fully formed history nerd by the age of 17 -- I wanted one of those scholarships. There was, however, no application process and no information on when or how kids were being chosen, so I had no idea how to make it happen.

And then out of the blue one day, my teacher announced the four students who had been selected to go. Four students, none of whom was me. Such a disappointment!

I don't know why I wanted to go so badly; I was interested in the Civil War, but not all that fascinated by it (yet). And while I was friendly with my classmates who'd been chosen to go, I wasn't especially close with any of them. Looking at it in hindsight, I can't recall any reason it seemed like a can't-miss opportunity, but nevertheless, I went to the teacher after class to ask her why she hadn't picked me. I can't remember exactly what happened next, beyond a vague recollection that someone dropped out, but my initiative paid off -- I was picked as the replacement and would be heading to Gettysburg in July.

Our topic that year was the Battle of Gettysburg, which was then celebrating its 125th anniversary. I spent a week listening to lectures from mind-bogglingly knowledgable scholars, touring the battlefield with a level of detail that had never occurred to me, and hanging out with new friends -- both other high school students and the few adults who didn't find a pack of teenagers as irritating as we likely were. I learned a ton, and had such a good time that I attended the Institute at least a dozen more times over the next 15 years.

It doesn't sound like a life-changing experience, I'll grant you. Maybe more fun than your average conference, but surely not more than that.

Fast-forward almost 10 years, to late 1997. I was planning my move from Albany to DC, but was struggling with job hunting. I was talking on the phone one night with my friend Kevin -- whom I had met at my second Civil War Institute -- about the trouble I was having finding good prospects and he suggested I apply where he was working at the time, the Holocaust Museum. And so I did.

I got the job.

About a year later, I was feeling like it was time to move on, and Kevin once again had the answer: his wife Donna (maybe fiancée then?) was working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- where I had wanted to work ever seen seeing then-President Dick Moe speak at (you guessed it!) the Civil War Institute -- and they had some openings. If I applied, she could let HR know I was a good candidate.

Again, I got the job.

And, 14-plus years later, there I remain, because I've found career path that lets me talk about my passion for old places (and for finding new uses for them) on the Internet all day long. How great is that?

And so, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg also marks the 25th anniversary of when I unknowingly put myself on my path to adulthood. Crazy, eh?

The Rock

Everyone (I think) has, among the clutter of childhood memories, a few that really stand out. One of mine is the tour of Alcatraz I took with my family when I was 11. Two things in particular stand out in my mind: first, that my brother did the entire tour - which involved something like a hundred stairs - on crutches, and second, the tour guide put the entire group into a solitary confinement cell and closed the door. Being shut in a tiny, pitch-dark room where we had just been told prisoners were sent naked pretty much ensured the entire remainder of my life being spent on the straight-and-narrow. Though I never went into full-on obsession mode with Alcatraz the way I have with other things (like Tudor England, the Salem Witch Trials, and the Civil War), I've always remained interested in it and have seen more than a few movies and such about it. (Heck, I violated my "No Nicholas Cage movies ever!" rule to see the movie from which I stole this post's title.) I even visited Alcatraz a second time about 10 years ago when I was in San Francisco for a work trip. I found it disappointing, however, because the guide-led tour I remembered from childhood had been replaced with audio headsets and seemed to cover much less of the prison that I remembered, and most definitely did not include a closed-door view of a solitary confinement cell.

At any rate, it should come as no surprise at this point that I decided to record new show "Alcatraz" that started a couple of weeks back. I didn't know much about it other than it was about a place that I'd been interested in for most of my life, and it was produced by JJ Abrams, who also created LOST, one of my all-time favorites. Oh, and that it was crime show with some sort of sci-fi element.

I'm not sure how it took until the third day of my being an invalid before I remembered to check the DVR, but I did this evening and promptly settled in to watch the three hours of "Alcatraz" I found there - the two-hour premiere and last week's episode. And I gotta say, I liked it. I mean, it was no Downton Abbey, but if you like crime shows (which I do) and have a fondness for the convoluted, may-never-pay-off mystery stylings of JJ Abrams (which I also do), then it's definitely enjoyable to watch.

The basic premise is that in 1963, when Alcatraz closed, everyone there - guards and prisoners - vanished and were not transferred to other federal prisons as was supposed to happen. Fast-forward to 2012, and the prisoners are re-appearing and committing new crimes... And are still at the ages they were in 1963. They're being pursued by Sam Neill channeling Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black," Hugo from LOST, and a female cop who apparently isn't Jennifer Morrison but looks just like her. Oh, and when they catch them, they get re-incarcerated in a shiny-new faux-Alcatraz.

OK, that makes it sound fairly terrible. But really, once you surrender to the obvious unreality of it, and commit to the old "suspension of disbelief" it's pretty good.

Or at least I like it, but then, Alcatraz was imprinted on my imagination at a very young age.

The Rock
The Rock