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.
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!
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!
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!