Friday, March 26, 2010

Battlefields, Blossoms, Bikes, and Beavers

This city cannot seem to make up its mind about the weather. Last weekend it was sunny and in the mid-seventies and the mall was filled with sun bathers and kite fliers. I awoke today greeted by rain and temperatures in the upper forties that continued to drop throughout the day. I had to bring back my fur trooper cap, gloves, and jackets that had been all but packed away for the season in order to survive being posted outside the Washington Monument throughout the day.

Despite such conditions I still decided to take advantage of my new acquisition of a bike and ride into work this morning. After looking for quite a while on craigslist I succeeded in finding a bike for a good price and went and picked it up. I rode into work the very next day and have continued to do so nearly every day since!  I am going to try and ride as much as I can. It is actually faster than taking the metro, doesn't cost anything, and gives me the exercise! It does make getting my uniform to work and carrying anything else with me a lot more challenging though!

I am excited to take advantage of some of the other trails in the area in the near future also. One that I really want to do is the Mt. Vernon Trail, stretching along the Potomac River from Theodore Roosevelt Island all the way down to Mt. Vernon. Someday soon I will tackle that one!

I did get to go explore Theodore Roosevelt Island this last Tuesday and also headed into Georgetown where I viewed the stairs where the preacher tumbles down in "the exorcist" and got free ice cream at Ben & Jerrys. Yay free ice cream day! I also encountered a bar bearing my name. Seriously. Why it is there I don't know, but I had to get a picture of course, and even went inside and ate dinner. The food wasn't anything special, and neither was the establishment, but it bears my name, so it was exciting!

On Wednesday I embarked upon a Civil War Battlefield adventure. Over the course of 14 hours I traveled south to Fredericksburg and visited five separate Civil War Battlefields: Fredericksburg, Salem's Church, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. It was great fun for me to be able to actually walk the fields and see where all these things I have read about actually occurred! Highlights included Chatham Manner, a beautiful old house overlooking the Rappahannok that was a staging point for the Army of the Potomac's attack upon Confederate forces on Marye's Heights in December, 1962. I got to see actually trenches and earthworks in several different places, especially notable in The Wilderness where the battle came alive before my eyes as I walked the ground where the men had fought and died so long ago. I saw the place where Stonewall Jackson fell at Chancellorsville, shot by his own men as he returned from scouting enemy lines. I stood in the spot where Robert E. Lee famously stated, "It is well that war is so terrible: otherwise we would grow too fond of it" as he looked over the fighting at Fredericksburg.  I walked along the route taken by Winfield Scott Hancock and 20,000 fellow soldiers to take the "muleshoe" and bloody angle at Spotsylvania.

And as I walked amongst the fallen on these fields of battle I made a decision. In May I am going to be doing a special program about the "better angels of our nature" as reflected in the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War. I decided on Wednesday that I am going to do the program in full uniform as Chamberlain. It is going to require a tremendous amount of work and effort to do so, but it is such an amazing opportunity to do something I have always wanted to do and to actually portray a Civil War soldier while teaching people about some of the unique stories of the people actually taking part in the fighting.

My job continues to provide significant moments of connection with a wide variety of visitors and I continue to receive unforgettable opportunities. A few days ago I once again gave the MLK program at Lincoln, adding several new elements and giving a much more engaging and passionate talk than I ever have previously. This time I had more than 150 people gathered to listen to me tell the story of how our understanding of freedom and equality has evolved and expanded in the last two hundred and thirty years. It never ceases to humble and inspire me to see people set aside time on their vacation to hear what I have to say as I attempt to give meaning to the core ideals, not only of this country, but of all of humanity. 

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining a discussion group about the principles of Jesus meeting in the carriage house of George Mason's old manor house in Arlington. A special guest came and spoke about the fruits of the spirit and described fascinating connections and understandings of those fruits in ways I had never known or thought about before. It was wonderful to be challenged to process and think in that way! And I also (of course) had to add my own thoughts and ended up speaking about the cherry blossoms as symbols of living life to the full, self-control, meekness, and honor through the story of the Samurai and the significance of the blossoms to their culture.

Tomorrow marks the first true day of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, but the official beginning came yesterday when the Parks Service gave a press conference along the tidal basin. I was selected to play a crucial part of the event by portraying "Paddles" the Beaver, the official mascot of the festival. I shook hands, gave high fives, and looked very beaver-esque. I also made the news in several different venues. Three such appearances are available through the links below...  (I'm the giant bug-eyed "hoaky" beaver)


I am actually portraying paddles again tomorrow for the first official day of the festival! As the crowds descend the blossoms are out and beginning to bloom all throughout the park, forming quite the inspiring sight!

Attached you will find a few picture marking the highlights of the last week.

More adventures to come!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, The Last Samurai, the Korean War and WWII Veterans

Life continues to be an adventure with each new day. In less than two weeks things are going to become absolutely insane here in the park. March 27 marks the beginning of the two week "Cherry Blossom Festival." In preparation for the festival I had to come up with a special talk. I have been working on it for a while, and have spent the bulk of the last two nights finishing an outline which I have to turn in tomorrow. It ended up being seven pages altogether and was a successful amalgamation of an explanation of how the cherry trees got here, Samurai culture and how America helped lead to the demise of the Samurai, the movie "the Last Samurai" and Lord of the Rings. Now that doesn't sound like something I would come up with...

Yesterday I finally got to work at the Korean War Veteran's Memorial for the first time. I have been here for more than two months but until yesterday had never been posted at Korea. I ended up being sent there last minute yesterday and just so happened to be posted with the ranger who is, himself, a Korean War veteran. He is a very odd individual, but I certainly gained from the opportunity to speak with him about the war and his experience. It was raining heavily throughout the day yesterday so this other ranger elected not to go out and give any talks, which meant that it was on me to do it if it was going to happen. I had never been at the memorial before and have no talk prepared for the site, but I figured the best way to learn is to do it, so I went out and started talking to people. In addition to answering questions and chatting with visitors I ended up giving ten official talks, ranging in time from 10-35 minutes, all of which were in the rain. It was pretty exciting for me to realize that I could just show up at a site I had ever worked at before and succeed in holding the attention of ten separate groups while standing in the rain and helping them to understand why 33,000 Americans died in place called Korea between 1950-53. I am truly blessed.

This past Thursday Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg came to a special ceremony at the WWII Memorial to pay homage to veterans and to dedicate the new HBO series "The Pacific," the newest production of their collaboration concerning the war (following "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers") which premiered tonight. I wasn't working that day, but I did walk down during my lunch, saw both Hanks and Spielberg at the memorial, and briefly spoke to a few of the nearly 300 veterans who has assembled for the event. Today I was posted at the WWII memorial. I didn't see Hanks and Spielberg, but I was blessed to have conversation with five different families representing various aspects of WWII.

#1-A Navy pilot and his wife, coming to the memorial for the first time. He never saw combat, but instead trained pilots here in the US during WWII. He retired from the army following the war, but was called back in 1952 to serve in the same capacity while preparing pilots in Korea.

#2-A woman brought her granddaughter to see the memorial representing her years in high school when she had to ration her food and worked in a factory to make army raincoats after school. She told me about the many friends who were represented by the 4048 stars on the wall of freedom (representing 404,800 American deaths during the war).

#3-An air force pilot came to the memorial with his son and his two grandsons, who had brought him from Iowa as a special birthday present so that he too could see the memorial to the greatest international crises in world history. He served in the pacific during Guadalcanal and subsequent battles and talked to me about how he had just left the USS Lexington before it was sunk, and how he had worked with the Marines that would be portrayed in the upcoming HBO series.  

#4-The deputy director of US Park Police brought his mother to the memorial. She grew up in the district, but had since moved away and never seen the memorial. She told me about the temporary navy facilities erected alongside the reflecting pool during the war and how she used to play in them with her friends when they were abandoned after the war.

#5-A 90 year old Marine was joined by his daughter and great granddaughter as they came to honor his service in the war as a radar programmer, one of very few who served in this capacity in the pacific during the war. 

In every case one member of the family had been radically affected by the war and had made the journey to this place with members of his/her family to pay respect to the memories and honor those who had paid the ultimate price. What does someone like me say to someone like that? I can think of little more than the simple words "thank you." 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Poignant Opportunity

The dismal weather has continued. Despite my plans to go out into the wild and see more of the outdoor wonders of this city and the surrounding area, I have remained largely confined to indoor pursuits on account of the weather. So I will have to wait to see and experience more of the outside world as things warm up a bit more. 

I did have a few days with some sun last week, though I had to work for most of it. I did have the notable exception of getting to go to Harpers Ferry with the Park Service and learned a great deal more about the story of John Brown and his attempted revolt and attack upon the armory there. It was a great taste of the area, but not enough to truly appreciate it. It is a beautiful region of the country, centered upon the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and it is now on my list of places to go back to and experience more fully! The Appalachian Trail runs right through the same area, and the exploration of the same has also become a priority for me come warmer weather. 

Thankfully, though I have not been able to explore outdoors, I have not been housebound, and have still been able to take advantage of opportunities to see and appreciate both our culture and our history. As of today I have officially viewed every display in both the American History and Natural History Smithsonian Museums. It took me four visits to the former and three to the latter in order to do so, but I have succeeded in that task. I also ran the mall yesterday, beginning at the American History Museum, going all the way down to the Capitol, back the other way to Lincoln, and returning to the museum, making a full circuit of the mall. I ran in the mist and my knee has pained me today, but I made it all the way, without giving in. 

Tonight I went to a special screening of the film, "Food, Inc." at the National Archives. Sometimes there are special perks to living in the Nation's Capitol! I also completed a week long class to become certified to respond in a disaster situation through a program called CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) under the department of Homeland Security and FEMA. I will be going to a second class beginning this next Tuesday. 

So I am certainly keeping busy! And every day offers further opportunities to connect with visitors and help them to appreciate and understand the meaning behind what they are seeing. One moment of special poignant significance for me came on Sunday at the Jefferson Memorial, where a young woman from London came and requested a talk. It turned out she was the only one interested so I spoke to her about Jefferson, the promise and ideas this country is founded upon, and the principle and values of freedom and equality that lie at the core of humanity.  She had an eager mind and a unique perspective because she was actually born in Paris and grew up in France, but was now living in London (and she also happened to be ridiculously cute! :). She was well versed, not only in French history, but in American as well, and we engaged in dialogue about such topics as the French Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, and Napoleon for more than half an hour. It made me realize very clearly how significant what I am doing really is. This is so much more than simply explaining how a memorial was built. I have the opportunity here to resonate with the very principles and values that give meaning to our lives and direction and purpose to our existence. It doesn't matter if you are an American or a French girl transplanted to Britain, these sites and this city have deep meaning and significance and represent the best parts of who we are, not as a nation, but as citizens of humanity. 

May these principles never lose their luster and poignant meaning as they stand immemorial, forever immortalized here, in the center, not only of this nation, but of the modern world.