A New Spirit in Gettysburg

I headed south and arrived in Gettysburg.  I stopped at a McDonald’s next to the Walmart where I planned to stay overnight.  I found a good table and set up my laptop for a long visit.  I cable locked it to the table stand (keep it secure for when I have to run to the bathroom) and took out a pen and pad to take notes for affordable things to do while in town.   I also use this time to do my online banking, check my emails, apply for jobs in Texas, read the news and of course, mess around on Facebook.  I like to call this taking a “business day”.   I have to say that McDonald’s has become gypsy friendly since they have decided to become a part-time coffee house, rivaling Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks.  It’s just a matter of finding one with available power outlets.

After I got settled in at my table, I went up to the counter to order a few Dollar Menu items.  On the way back, I noticed a blonde woman and her college-aged daughter praying grace over their food.  They weren’t doing one of those quick “Thanks for the grub” prayers.  They made time for what they were doing.  Their backs were straight and their eyes were closed as they held hands across the small table in plain view of everyone in line at the counter.   I’ve never seen anyone pray grace at a McDonalds, better yet, I’ve never seen anyone pray grace at any restaurant. I searched online looking for interesting things to do.  Being the patriot that I am, Gettysburg was full of American history that I wanted to experience.

It was late and my business day came to a close.  I parked at Walmart and went inside to pick up a few things.  It was kind of run down for a tourist area; small, low ceilings and poorly lit.  When I brought my things to the check out counter, I was tired and ready to sleep.  Since their parking lot was relatively small, I decided to do something that I usually don’t do.  I asked the associate if it was okay to park overnight.  At most Walmarts, RV and Truck parking overnight is allowed, but it’s recommended to ask as a courtesy.   The associate told me that she had to ask the assistant manager on shift since the manager was out for the night.  After she checked out my items she turned to the Assistant Manager, who happened to be working in the next isle.  “No, absolutely, no! It’s prohibited because of the townships!”, she said with an odd and off-putting zeal.  Now, I was tired and angry.  I could’ve just not asked permission, blended in with the rest of the vehicles in the parking lot and they wouldn’t have known the difference.   Since I already “flagged” myself by asking, I opted to stay in the parking lot of a neighboring inn.   Since the only Walmart in town wasn’t gypsy friendly, I decided that this would be my last and only night in Gettysburg.  Apart from a few choice attractions, why pump any more of my money into a town that doesn’t support me?

The next morning, I went to the Gettysburg National Cemetery.   It was a beautiful day as I walked through the gates.  I first stopped at the Lincoln Monument; it was near the spot where Lincoln had given the Gettysburg Address.   I continued on to visit some of the final resting places of the Civil War dead.  The battle of Gettysburg, lasting only three days, was one of the bloodiest battles in our nation’s history and a turning point for Union victory.  Yet, nothing prepared me for seeing the overwhelming number of headstones of these poor souls lost during this short time.  As I walked in between graves, both marked and unmarked, the history of this event became more to me than just writing on a texbook page.

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Afterwards, I went down the street to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum.  It features a restored cyclorama from 1884 of the Battle of Gettysburg, an unbelievably large exhibit (almost half the size of a football field) displaying valuable relics and interactive media presentations covering the Civil War from beginning to end, including the assassination of President Lincoln and the reformation.  I have to say that it was the best exhibit I have visited thus far!  The museum also features a short film produced by the History Channel, that artfully framed the Civil War and it’s aftermath called, “A New Birth of Freedom”, narrated by Morgan Freeman, which was powerful enough to leave me in tears.  The way the actor, portraying Lincoln, delivered his famous closing phrase of the Gettysburg Address, “…that government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, for the PEOPLE…” with his verbal emphasis on the people (rather than the overused emphasis on the prepositions, “of”, “by”, and “for”) really hit it home for me.  It gave Abraham Lincoln’s words and the foundation of what our government is about true meaning for me.    At that moment, a new spirit of inspiration arose in me.  I decided that I would head to Springfield, Illinois to visit Lincoln’s Presidential Museum and anything else historically tangible that I could experience of him!

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gettcyclo-415Gettysburg Cyclorama surrounds the entire room!

When I was through visiting the Museum, I found that only half of my day was spent.  I decided to go to the town center and have a Civil War era photo taken at Victorian Photography Studio.  They don’t do the tongue-in-cheek pictures people have taken at carnivals and fairs.  These folks use the same wet plate technique that was used in the 1850’s!  I learned of this studio online over a year ago and was excited to finally have a real old tymie photo taken!  A husband and wife team runs the studio and they were very  pleasant to work with.  They weren’t what most people would expect of modern day Victorian photographers.  I imagined that their dress and attitude would be stiflingly prim, nostalgically echoing a bygone era.  Instead, they were humorous, down to Earth and casual.  I also spotted a quite a few cool, badass tattoos on them… I have a hunch that they like to go biking (Harley, not 10-speed).  After I selected my package (a small tin type for around $40), I told them of my gypsy lifestyle.  “You’re man is letting you travel by yourself?”, the husband half of the duo asked.  “I’m meeting up with him in Texas at the end of the summer, where we’ll most likely make our residence.” I replied.  His concern quickly subsided.  I’m starting to see a trend here.  I never thought people would see me traveling on my own as a big deal, but they often do.

His wife brought me upstairs to the studio to help me pick out a costume and set up the shot.  Usually, they work together, but since it was just myself and not a larger party, she was able to take care of me herself.   When she asked me what I had in mind, I told her that I wanted something that the average, everyday black woman would wear in that time.  Since the costumes were authentic Victorian pieces, she dressed me herself to avoid any rips and tears that may occur from misfits.  The first two garments couldn’t button over my “girls”.  With me being a size 14 at 5’6, they are quite ample.  The third garment, luckily, fit perfectly.  She then picked out a nice cameo broach and clip on earrings from her accessory bin to complete the look.  My pink, woven hair net for my dreadlocks, coincidently were time-appropriate, so we kept that on.

We had good conversation while we were getting ready for my shoot.  It turns out that she’s Christian and met her husband at church.  We both had been married before and shared similar views about commitment.  We both agreed that: 1. Commitment means that giving up is not an option… and 2. It takes two people with that mindset to keep that commitment.  She positioned me on a chair in front of the large, wooden camera then placed a U-shaped metal headrest behind my head to keep me still.  Using headrests were common for Victorian photographers.  Since the shutter speed of their cameras is slow, the slightest move could result in a blurry picture.

When it was time to take my photo, she slid the tin in the camera and removed the light block from behind the lense.  I had to stay still for about one minute.  Afterwards, she removed the plate with my captured my image, which was barely visible.  She carefully brought it to a nearby table to process it.  She explained the process to me as she worked the plate.  I saw that the tin was very light and faintly had my image as a negative as she placed it in a dish of water.  “Now, when I place it in the next dish, your picture will develop right before your eyes.”, she said.  Then she placed it in a dish of cyanide. Slowly, an image of me appeared, quickly starting at the edges like paper consumed by fire.  “Wow, this is Victorian me!” I thought in amusement.  The second thought I had was how aged and worn I appeared!  So here’s what I figured out… Tin plate Victorian photography is harsh and unkind.  When taken up close, it emphasizes every fold and crease.  Have you ever seen a photograph of a historical figure (when they were relatively young) and thought to yourself, “Goodness… Life must’ve been hard back in the day!”?  This type of photography, though nostalgically dignified, can add a good 10 – 20 years on anyone over the age of 17!  Well, that’s what I told myself.  Also, if your skin is deeper than olive, you may come out five times darker than you actually are regardless of lighting.  Having said that, I really dig my Victorian photo!

1010455_4680096090761_1137802453_nI am my own great grandma!

Next up… Baltimore!

Side note:  My original photo is actually clearer (harsh) and sepia colored.  Since the photo was processed on tin, it didn’t transfer well when I tried to have it scanned.  I had to take a picture of my picture with my phone!

Dearest Pennsylvania

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Pennsylvania Dutch Country was my destination right after leaving my friend’s show in Astoria, Queens.   I plowed through New Jersey and a good part of Pennsylvania until midnight, when I started to get tired.   I found a Waffle House where I decided to have a late night “dinner”.  There was a busy inn next door, so I discretely parked in their lot for the night.

The next morning, I finally made it into town.  Lancaster is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to!  Sprawling farms with bright green mounds of grass at almost every turn.  There were cows and finely bred horses basking in the pastures.  I visited this area once before, as a child, but there’s a difference between seeing it from a crowded chartered tour bus and your own RV.

I had set my navigation to a beacon location (any national chain that can offer free camping, wi-fi, or some other gypsy necessity), a Super Walmart to camp.  I was surprised that, their main roads were hectic and busy.  I guess that’s expected when you’re in the middle of a huge tourist destination.  The Amish community is the center of it.  They live on their farms, separate from the modern world, but you randomly see them as you move about town.  They are riding on their horse buggies along the roads, selling baked and handmade goods at stands on their property, I’ve even seen Amish men and women shopping at Walmart!

The Amish way of life is simple, full of contentment, and God-centered… and it shows!  I’ve noticed that when I am around Amish women, in particular, I sense what I can only describe as ”Purity of Presence”.  Plainly dressed, silent, and detached from everyone around them, I’m compelled to have a deep respect for them.  It’s almost like how I feel being around a nun (as someone who never attended Catholic school).

During my visit, I ate… a lot!  I went to the lunch buffet at Bird in Hand Restaurant, owned by the Smucker Family (distant relatives of the folks who make jam).  Their food, had traditional Dutch fare such as fried chicken, buttered noodles, apple dumplings and shoofly pie which was amazing.  Their meat, fish and produce all came from local farms and hatcheries, if not their own.  How did I know this?  My waitress, Leisa actually started a pleasant, full-length conversation with me!  Folks are genuinely friendly here.  Let me list what usually passes as friendly service where I’m from: 1. Saying “hello”. 2. Smiling (real or plastic).  3.  Refraining from spitting in your food.   I also, remember another waitress, Stacy at the second Waffle House I visited in Pennsylvania.  I was sitting at the counter and we had a conversation about the unexpected paths that God has us take in life.  It’s been two weeks now and I still remember their names and it’s not because I wrote them down somewhere.  In contrast, I can’t remember the names of any of the servers I’ve had in living in Connecticut.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a stranger about God either.

Speaking of God, I had noticed right away that the culture here skews religious.   Two DJ’s on the classic rock station casually quoted The Bible in a humorous conversation about an argument one of them had with a friend.   On the community board at Dunkin’ Donuts, there were a few business cards that included Bible passages as their tag line.  Some of you reading this may be puzzled about why I’m pointing this out, but I was raised in a place that is very much secular in spirit.

There were many good and free (and close to free) things to do in Lancaster.  I took a tour at Mascot Roller Mills and Ressler Family Home, a completely water-powered grain mill that was run by three generations of the Ressler family.  Though the mill is still fully functional, it’s preserved as a museum.  The tour started off with a ten minute video interview with the last Ressler to run the mill (who has passed on in the early 90’s).  During the tour, the guide turned the mill machines on and demonstrated how the grains were processed.  I’m embarrassed to say that before I had taken this tour, I had no understanding of how flour was made.  Now I can tell you the different processes of making whole wheat flour, white flour, pastry flour, and which part of the wheat plant makes bran, and wheat germ!

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Water-powered Mill

Next stop was the Mennonite information Center, where I took a guided tour of The Biblical Tabernacle, a beautifully designed reproduction of the tabernacle in the Old Testament.  A Baptist minister in Florida originally built the exhibit in the 1940’s.  The Mennonites later purchased it for public display and for students of Biblical and cultural studies.  The tour guide (who I can only guess is a minister) gave such a gentle, plain, and impassioned presentation, that some of the visitors (me included) were moved to tears.  What touched me the most was when she explained a common ritual practiced by the Hebrews exiled in the desert, outside the Tabernacle.  Once a year, they would pray all their sins unto an unblemished lamb before sacrificing it since only the shedding of blood could atone for wrong doings against God.  She went on to artfully weave this into the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ.  I was pleasantly surprised by poignancy of this experience.

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Tabernacle Replica

After the tour, I watch two short films in their screening room, “Who are the Amish?”, a documentary about the Amish way of life and “Postcards from a Heritage of Faith”, a documentary about Mennonites faith, history and how they differ from the Amish.  Though a little dated, they were well made, entertaining and informative.  Though the Amish film was beautiful and quaint, I feel that I got the most out of watching the Mennonite film.  In the late 1600’s a group split from the Mennonites because they felt they were being too worldly and receptive to change.  Those folks who split are whom we know as the Amish.  The Mennonites see change as inevitable, live modern and actively reach out to other communities and countries to spread their faith.  The split must’ve been for the best.  The film featured Mellinger Church located in town.  Seeing several brown faces in the pews aroused my curiosity.  In Dutch Country, the Amish get all the attention, but the Mennonites are way cooler!  I planned to pay that church a visit!

I arrived bright and early Sunday morning for their 8:30AM coffee and fellowship.  There was a greeter at the door who asked me if I’d be attending Sunday School.  “Isn’t that for children?” I asked.  She told me that in this church, they have it for all age groups then handed me information pamphlets.  I took three steps into the lobby before I was approached by a well-dressed, sweet-faced elderly woman named Maye* who introduced herself and asked if I was just visiting or looking for a new church home.   I told her that I was only passing through and wanted to visit before leaving Lancaster County.

Maye brought me downstairs to the kitchen and banquet area where parishioners were having coffee before class started.  The room was large with round covered tables and a kitchen window towards the back where refreshments were served.  She enthusiastically introduced me to everyone who crossed our path on the way to the kitchen.  The counter had a full spread of coffee, teas, and condiments.  The group of men behind the counter was friendly and jovial.  I helped myself to some lemon-ginger tea and sat down with Maye and five of her friends.  It was then that I noticed that the men and women sat at separate tables.  I didn’t see this as a bad thing.  If you’re retiree who spends most of your time with your spouse, “girl and guy talk” should be taken at every opportunity!  Maye’s friends were pleasant to chat with and made an effort to make me feel welcomed… Which I did.

A good-looking man with dark features in his late thirties approached our table and Maye introduced us.   Dave* is a Deacon at the church and she told me that I’ll be going to his Sunday School class across the hall (classes are divided by age groups).  “Don’t worry, he’s safe… He’s married!”, Maye chuckled… half jokingly.   Dave laughed as a blush washed over his face, “Of, course I’m safe!”  Maye’s words struck me as quaint.  It allowed me to imagine a time when women were more protected from wolves, cads and humiliation.  An electronic bell chimed and everyone went to class.

In Dave’s class they discussed the book, “Just Walk Across the Room”.  It’s a guide about evangelizing the people you come across by simply connecting to them.  Dave handed me his copy to follow along.  There were seven of us in all, sitting in a circle, including Dave’s wife, Melony* who was sitting next to me. Everyone was attractive, wholesome and fashionable in a J.C. Penny sort of way. There was some small talk about what I thought of my visit and the sights around town, etc.  Everyone seemed a little surprised about my solo RV trip.  “You’re doing this alone?!”, Dave asked.   I couldn’t help but feel that the men in the group were hoping their wives wouldn’t get any funny ideas!  They were warm and friendly enough, but I did feel low-grade tension and I couldn’t place the reason.   I don’t think it was because I was black (that’s a totally different vibe).  Maybe, they’re not used to uppity women.  Maybe they rarely have visitors under 65… I don’t know.  At the end of class, they prayed for me to have a safe trip.

Dave and Melony invited me to sit with them during the service and Dave let me keep his book.  Their beautiful daughters, aged 8 and 10, sat in the pew behind us.   I was a little surprised to see that the Mennonite style of worship was no different than a white Baptist service.  There was a band that played contemporary Christian music as parishioners followed the lyrics on a large screen.  Some people, Dave included, raised their hands up in the air as they sang to receive the Holy Spirit. The older folks dressed more formal.  Some of the older women wore traditional white bonnets on their heads.  The younger people dressed casual.  Since I was wearing my long summer skirt and Teva sandals, I did not feel out of place.    One thing disappointed me.  I didn’t see any black faces as shown in the documentary… Where the hell did they go???

As the service came to a close, I wondered if I would be invited to go out somewhere afterwards as church folks often do for newcomers.  I quickly started going through a list of excuses to give because I was in a hurry to move on to my next spot.  Also, Melony didn’t seem comfortable sitting next to me; she had her arms folded the whole time.   At the end of the benediction, everyone stood up to leave.  Melony turn to me and said, “It was really nice meeting you, have a safe journey.”  I thanked her and extended my hand.  She reached out to give me a hug…. Seriously?  Dave, who was sitting on the other side of her reached over to shake my hand.  “It was really nice meeting you.  Thank you for visiting us.”  I felt his sincerity.

I rushed out to the lobby and briefly scanned the room for Maye, but did not see her so I quickly left. Feelings of guilt lingered as I sped down the highway for not waiting around to say goodbye to her.  She was so nice and welcoming to me, but I felt compelled to leave right away.   My guilt has since subsided.  I’ve decided that since my gut told me to leave, it was simply the right thing to do.

Up next… Gettysburg!

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Side Note:  It’s been a month since liftoff!  With writing, I have a lot of catching up to do!

*Names changed to protect the innocent and infamous.