Saturday, April 24, 2010

Honoring the Fallen

Things have certainly been busy in the world of park Guide ranger Garrett in Washington DC of late. The visitors continue to come to the mall and keep expecting me to awe them with amazing interpretation and inform them of the wonders of this city and it's memorials. I am kept quite busy nearly every day when I am working these days.

The last two days have provided significant and special opportunities to speak to veterans at both the Korean and WWII memorials. Far more significantly, they have also afforded me with the chance to both bear witness to and be a part of some truly special moments.  I worked at Korea yesterday and ended up giving most of the talks, generally to groups of 10-15 people. But when I went out at 11:00 I found quite the crowd waiting for me and ended up giving a full-scale much longer talk to a group of at least 30 people. When I finished my talk I was approached by a man who told me that he had served in Korea. I immediately grew nervous, thinking that he was going to find fault with what I had said, but he actually thanked me and told me how much he appreciated me being out there, caring for the memorial, and representing "his war" to the visitors. He went on to tell me about his experience while in Korea and as he spoke a crowd gathered around us to listen to what he had to say. He asked me if he could recite a poem that he had composed about the war and upon my affirmation he proceeded to do so from memory, relating a powerful picture of what the war had been like from the perspective of a soldier on the front lines. As he spoke my eyes filled with tears on several occasions and I had to work very hard to hold it together. When he concluded the poem he raised his hand in salute to his comrades and the crowd was completely silent for several moments before beginning to clap and offer him their hands in thanks for his service.  

Today I found myself stationed at the WWII Memorial during the visits of 9 different Honor Flight groups. These groups consisted of as many as 190 WWII veterans (in each group) who had made the journey together, often with their children, to visit the memorial and pay their respects to those who had fallen. It was amazing simply to bear witness to the way these men interacted with the memorial and with each other, many of them seeing it for the first time and bearing mementos of friends and brothers who were unable to make the journey. Seeing the way their faces would light up when people approached them to shake their hands, offer them a salute, and thank them for their service made me cry on several occasions. Many of these men thanked me for my service, for being there to protect and watch over their memorial. It really made me realize, once again, the wonderful gift that I have been given here in this job.

 I was privileged to speak to many of the men throughout the day and sustain a brief glimpse into their world during the war. One 91 year old man had landed just west of Casablanca in Operation Torch and fought in a tank division in every engagement in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He was still in Italy when Germany surrendered in May, 1945. Another man came into France shortly after D-day, was wounded, and spent 14 months being transferred from hospital to hospital through Europe before making it back home once again. I approached two men sitting together in their wheelchairs and in speaking to them discovered that one had landed in Normandy and the other at Iwo Jima. They told me about Patton and his drive to push his men forward, and about MacArthur and how much of a pompous fool he really was. History was coming alive before my eyes.

I stood at full salute with many of the veterans as one man sang the Star Spangled Banner in a special ceremony to honor their fallen comrades. I watched as Colin Powell spontaneously showed up and greeted the veterans, shaking hands and posing for pictures. I saw one man approach another brandishing his certificate of service declaring that he had just had it signed by Colonel Powell. I listened as one of the leaders of the Honor Flight spoke to a group about how they had saved the world and provided freedom to so many. It was really a series of one emotionally gripping moment following another. And it was my job to be there!

I have also been able to take part in a series of unique adventures in recent days. On Monday I attended the show "little shop of horrors" at Ford's Theater, sitting in the shadow of the box where Lincoln had been shot 145 years and 5 days previously, along with five girls I met when I arrived at the theater. On Tuesday I explored the wilderness of Prince William Forest Park while seeking to avoid unexploded ordinance left over from OSS training during WWII and then joined my uncle in sampling some excellent Spanish Paella. On Wednesday I visited the navy yard courtesy of my roommate who works for the navy, spoke to several naval historians, got several free books, and visited the national navy museum, which includes such artifacts as the Trieste, the only manned vessel that has ever gone into the Mariana Trench.  

On Thursday, whilst eating Thai food with a friend, a man calling himself "Teddy" approached our table and proceeded to ask us to name random countries so that he might tell us what he knew about them. It was one of the most creative methods of panhandling that I have ever encountered and we talked to him for quite a while. Last night I joined five other friends in cheering on the Washington Nationals as they successfully defeated the Dodgers. The two exciting home runs sent over the fence by first basemen Adam Dunn helped redeem an earlier play in which he neglected to keep his foot on the bag, allowing a base hit that should have been as easy out. Following the game we ended up in the perfect spot to watch the special Friday night fireworks show over the Anacostia river.

The opportunities in this city and in this job are constantly affirming my decision to come here. I continue to seek to live my life to the fullest in every moment, making the most of this life that I have been given.

Living always in dangerous wonder...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oh Yeah, and I'm going to be on TV, but not for a while

This past Monday after giving a talk at the Jefferson Memorial one of the people who had listened to the talk came up and told me he was a reporter form c-span and that they are working on a special project about Thomas Jefferson. He went on to tell me that he was very impressed with my talk and wanted to know when I would be doing it again and if it would be all right to film it. He also told me they were coming back the next day (April 13) to film the ceremony taking place for Jefferson's 267th birthday so I thought that the project they were doing was a short affair that would be aired that night. When I couldn't locate it I emailed the guy and just now got a reply from him. In that reply he told me that, "We will go to air with the documentary in early September," which I take to mean that I may very well have found myself a part of a much larger project than I had realized! You never know who is listening to you here in this park!  

Epic Bike Rides and Unique Work Schedules

So this last Wednesday I awoke about 7:00 AM to find an absolutely beautiful spring day that was simply begging for adventure. And since the day before had been cold and rainy I simply had to oblige! So I decided it was the perfect opportunity to do one of the things I was really wanting to do while here in DC, to ride my bike along the "Mt. Vernon Trail" from Theodore Roosevelt Island all the way to Mount Vernon. That particular trail follows the Potomac for 18.5 miles, winding through the historic community of Alexandria, VA and then through the trees and extensive flora on the approach to the home of George Washington. It was an absolutely splendid and beautiful ride, and I picked the right time to go! There was green everywhere and flowers and all sorts of color surrounding me on the journey.

I actually rode from my house which added a little more than 6 additional miles to the journey, totaling just shy of 25 in about two hours and twenty minutes (including the necessary stops at signs and lights in both DC and Alexandria). Since I had made such good time I had the chance to explore a lot more of Mount Vernon. The gardens were splendid and full of flowers and you could really appreciate the diversity of Washington's planting in the many different trees and plants surrounding the estate. I also explored the re-creation of a frontier farm including Washington's unique threshing barn as well as a bit of the forested area of the estate. Quite the lovely place! Alas, I failed to locate the secret passageways and tunnels pictured in National Treasure 2! 

Then it was time to turn around and ride back home, which I miraculously managed to accomplish, thus completing a circuit of nearly 50 miles, definitely the longest distance I have ever traveled in a single day via non-motorized (or enginized) transportation! It was a glorious adventure, though a very tiring one!

On Thursday I rode my bike to work (5.5 miles) then to the discussion/small group I have started attending (5 miles) and then back home again (10 miles) for an additional total of a solid 20 miles, thus compounding the effects of the day before. My legs were very clear that they would likely stage a revolution if I were to subject them to further torment, so I have used the metro to get to work the last several days!

I actually drove to work today because I came in quite early today, arriving at 5:30 in order to load up, transport, and set up the necessary materials to clean the Vietnam Wall. I have volunteered to help supervise weekly wall washings of both the Vietnam and Korean memorials over the course of the next five months. I will be going out about once a month, early in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday so that all the cleaning is done before visitors start to arrive. It is a pretty sweet deal actually. I get here between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning, but then get to leave between 2:00 and 2:30, so I get a lot more time at the end of the day! It was actually really neat to be a part of cleaning the wall and to see the volunteers come out and give there time early on a Sunday morning to help keep the memorial looking the way it is intended to look. And today they didn't have any specific site that I needed to be at so I actually had time to work on my special talk on Joshua Chamberlain which I am giving in a few weeks! (my advertisement for the talk is attached) And I can make it even better because if I wait and take a 1:00 lunch (which would be about the time I normally do take lunch) I can just leave at 1:00. Hence the reason I am writing this email on Sunday afternoon! I have spent the morning in the bowels of the Jefferson Memorial at our secret ranger library, and I figured I would just stay and use this computer while I was already here.

Now I am off to find a spot to sit and read about Colonel Chamberlain for a while. I am thinking I may go try and find a sitting spot in Rock Creek Park so I can enjoy the beautiful spring weather!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Even Darkness Must Pass, a New Day Will Come, and When it Does the Sun Will Shine Out the Clearer

I finally have a day off once again! I spent the last four days, including yesterday which would have normally been my day off, working nearly 12 hours each day due to the cherry blossom festival. It has been ridiculously tiring and exhausting! It has been fun as well though. The blossoms were absolutely beautiful and I greatly enjoyed being able to see them each day as they continued to change. Now they are all nearly gone. It happens so quickly! A powerful image of the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life and of the way that we should bloom to the fullest in our own lives as we use well the time that has been given to us. 

The festival is not over, but we are on the downhill slope. This weekend was mass insanity. On Saturday alone there had to be close to 700,000 people in the park. That is a LOT of people! I spent a lot of time helping to protect the trees, reminding visitors why it was important not to climb up in the trees and pick the blossoms. That task never ends! The one that really got me was the family that came walking along, each holding several tulip bulbs that they had plucked from the tulip garden along the tidal basin. And when I kindly informed them that they could not pick the flowers and take them out of the park they proceeded to mouth off to me about how much they hated me for ruining their fun. It really does continually surprise me how self centered and clueless so many people really are. They come to a place of beauty and wonder and have to taint it by destroying the very source of that beauty so that they might enjoy a small fragment of the true beauty and hold onto it for a brief and fleeting instant rather than marveling in the majesty of the whole. I think there's a sermon in there somewhere!

On Saturday I was given the task of giving special talks on the cherry trees at the FDR memorial. As I mentioned in an earlier email the talk I designed was not the typical cherry talk. I included many of my own personal touches, and it was fun to actually get to do it. On that day I gave a talk five times to crowds as large as 45-50 people at once. There were so many people around that we had to stay in one place. I had the same assignment yesterday and it was a different world. This time my groups ranged from 1-10 and we were able to walk along the basin under the last remnants of the blossoms in their final display of glory. My talk centered upon the blossoms as a symbol of the samurai way of life, a life of honor and service dedicated to living life to the full, having reconciled oneself to the reality of death, and come to see the true value of life as a result. I included references to the Last Samurai and two from Lord of the Rings, ending with my favorite line and concept articulated in that story, "all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." It was nice to be able to talk about something completely unique and different. 

On Easter Sunday I biked to work early and joined 5000 other people at the sunrise service at the Lincoln Memorial. It was a lovely service, made much more significant by the magnificent sunrise unfolding before us. I have included a few of the pictures of that Easter Sunrise. There are many more pictures of both the sunrise and the cherry blossoms on my facebook account. 

On Monday I spent the entire day (11 hours) at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, alone for much of that time. That meant that I had to give talks every hour, try and staff the information kiosk, and help people find names on the wall by myself. Fairly overwhelming when a good 10,000 people came through during that time! Even so I was blessed with some incredibly poignant moments. On three different occasions I began to cry as I talked to people about the significance of the wall and what it has meant to people. I teared up every time I told the stories of some of the things that have been lift at the wall, things like medals of honor that a veteran brought to give to a comrade who deserved it more than he did, like wedding rings, laid at the wall beneath the name of a husband who never came home. Things like a harley davidson motorcycle that was custom built one piece at a time by a group of vets who had formed a motorcycle club after the war and then brought to the wall and left there so that if any of their brothers wanted to join them on a ride they would have a way to do so. Things like a ziploc bag containing the ultrasound image of an unborn child, a picture of a young family with two children and a letter that began, "dear Dad, you are about to be a grandfather again..." as a young woman told her father the story of a family he never knew when he didn't come home. 

And the conversations with those that have come to the wall... I helped one man find the name of his first sergeant, the man who trained him, looked out for him, and got him through the hard times, who had been out in a jeep when it hit a landmine in 1968. I helped another man find the name of a helicopter pilot who had flown with his Dad. One night, just before a mission his Dad wasn't feeling well and was pulled from the flight. The helicopter and his friend never came back. Now the son was at the wall to take a rubbing of the name back to his father who was unable to make the journey himself. And then there was a the lady who worked at a VFW in California who had come on behalf of the vets there. I helped her find nine different names, each with a special connection to one of the men in California who couldn't come themselves.  Or the man who listened to my talk and then came up to me in tears, thanking me for what I had said, for remembering, and for caring about his generation, many of whom are still living lives forever broken by what that wall represents. He comes to the wall every year when he is in DC on business and forces himself to make the journey once more, into the pain and heartache and then emerging on the other side. He told me his wife doesn't understand why he keeps coming back, but that he can't help it, that he is drawn to the wall and cannot leave without making that journey. And then there was the couple who I talked to for 55 minutes, attempting to explain to people who had lost friends and classmates and still did not understand why, how it was that 58,000 Americans never came home from the jungles of Vietnam. It taxed every bit of my historical knowledge, every bit of tact I possess, and all my ability to teach and explain. When that conversation concluded I was crying, she was crying, he was crying, and the six other people who had joined us were crying also. She hugged me and told me that I had brought the memorial alive for her and brought new meaning and understanding to something she has carried with her for forty years.

It is truly humbling to work at that wall.

On Saturday I am portraying Paddles the Beaver one last time, this time in the cherry blossom parade which means that the festival will have begun and ended with me as Paddles.

Another piece of good news is that my supervisor told us this week that there is a cert that will be released within the next few months for a minimum of ten permanent ranger positions on the mall and that he wants to hire as many of us as possible for those positions. There are definitely quite a few more of us than the ten positions, and there will be applicants from the outside as well, but it sounds like I really might have a chance at competing for one of those positions!

Resting in the glory of a day away from the tourists!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Soooo Many People...

The Cherry Blossom Festival is here, in full force with all the thousands of visitors filling the mall and surrounding area, and making it quite challenging to get around. There are people everywhere! I would guess that there were more than 200,000 people in the park today alone. The crowd never stopped the entire day. I spent a good portion of it attempting to educate visitors about why they needed to not climb in trees and pick cherry blossoms, pulling people out of trees, and confiscating blossoms again and again. Very tiring! It was a longggg day! And it is going to pale in comparison to what will be coming tomorrow! This has already been a long week for me, as I worked 11 official extra hours of overtime and spent more of my own time remaining on the mall.

It began a week ago when I spent the day as Paddles the beaver, posing for pictures and receiving hugs all day long! I was the recipient of more hugs from cute girls that one day than in the rest of my life combined. Too bad none of them knew it was me in the beaver suit!

When I worked overtime on Tuesday it was actually fairly quiet so I was able to walk along the tidal basin, talking to visitors and taking some pictures of the blossoms myself.

On my one day off I joined friends in traversing the Maryland side of Great Falls on the Billy Goat Trail, enjoying the beauty of the raging Potomac River and surrounding woods. On Thursday I worked at the Jefferson Memorial and saw more visitors in that single day than every other time I have worked there added together. These visitors included a supreme court justice, which was somewhat exciting, though I only saw her from a distance. I gave four official talks that day, each 30-40 minutes long, to groups of 25-30 every time, which is highly unusual for that location!

I received numerous compliments after these talks, which always feels validating and makes me want to do the best I can to represent these sites to the visitors. One comment in particular made my day. An Australian family stuck with me for the entire 35 minute talk, thanked me, and walked out of the chamber. I remained, speaking to other visitors, and about five minutes later the father came back in and asked me if I had written that talk myself, or if it was something that I had only given. When I told him that I had, in fact, come up with the talk on my own, he preceded to tell me that it was the best talk/presentation that he had ever heard. Now that's a good way to keep me motivated! 

Now I enter into Easter weekend. I will be working eleven hours each of the next four days including Easter Sunday. Even so I plan to attend a sunrise service at the Lincoln Memorial in celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Hopefully I will survive the rest of the festival and make it to next Saturday (April 10) when I will, once again, portray Paddles, this time in the Cherry Blossom Parade!