Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Illuminating the Sacrifice of War with the help of Steven Spielberg

On November 19, 2012 I spent the day working as a Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. This was, quite literally, a childhood dream come true. I first expressed a desire to be a Park Ranger when I was about 5 or 6 years old. At that point being a Park Ranger meant giving campfire programs in the campgrounds in National Parks. I got to give my own campfire programs in my very first NPS position at Wind Cave in 2009. In fourth grade I developed a great interest in the Civil War, an interest which continues to guide my life today. That very same year I saw special coverage of the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. At the age of ten, as I sat there watching the commemorative events, I figured out that the 150th anniversary of the battle would be in 2013. I decided at that point that I wanted to be at Gettysburg in July of 2013.

When I first started looking into working for the National Park Service Gettysburg was right at the top of my list of ideal places to work. I even flew out to meet with one of the chief rangers at the park to find out more about how I could end up working there. I quickly learned that it would be no simple task to work at Gettysburg, as it is an incredibly desirable park and one of the hardest at which to find employment.  Rather than despairing at the difficulties, I have spent the last four years applying for a wide variety of positions in the Park Service (my total tally is over 300) and have had the pleasure of working in four very different positions.

My current position has allowed me to be a part of some pretty special events, but November 19, 2012 opened up the door to a new level of dream fulfillment. That day marked the 149th anniversary of the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg: the day that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his few appropriate remarks that we know as the “Gettysburg Address.” My job that day was to capture the event on film to share with the thousands who could not be there in person. This would have been exciting for me in any situation, but was made infinitely more so because the keynote address was being delivered by Steven Spielberg.

We weren’t supposed to be there that day. The park didn’t invite us. We invited ourselves. It began with a facebook post from the park that Alison and I happened to see when we went to post a picture of ourselves at Cape Cod in October. When we returned from our trip to New England I mentioned the event to my boss and suggested that we should see if we could get ourselves involved. We succeeded in doing precisely that and found ourselves armed with cameras in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on a cold November morning. 

I had the added benefit of an assistant for the day, in the person of my dear wife, who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Spielberg herself.

It was a lovely ceremony that included, not only Spielberg’s address, but also a special wreath laying ceremony and a rendition of the famous address by 
re-enactor James Getty.

I have a great love of good stories, and Steven Spielberg is, without question, one of the storytellers that I most admire. I was quite impressed with his treatment of “Lincoln” so it was also fun to see Tony Kushner, the man responsible for the screenplay of the film.

I was additionally excited to spot another one of my most admired storytellers, Jeff Shaara, sitting in the audience during the ceremony.

I even got to play paparazzi and photograph Spielberg as he was signing autographs and leaving the event.

It was a memorable day for me, one that stands out as a highlight of my Park Service career. 

Less than two weeks later I went up to Antietam to photograph the Memorial Illumination. Over the course of the morning volunteers laid out 23,110 luminaries, each one representing one a casualty of the single bloodiest day in American history.

It was an impressive site to see in the daylight, but even more so once the light faded. Even as the sun set, the luminaries began to come to life. The sunset itself was brilliant, especially since I got to watch it from a position where I was the only person around. It was one of those moments where I had to stop and remind myself that the government was paying me to take pictures of what I was seeing.

There was about a 15 minute window after the sun went down before true darkness set in in which the color in the sky was complemented by the brilliance of the luminaries

Once the darkness set in the battlefield truly came to live as all 23,110 luminaries shown forth in their true brilliance.

It was unlike anything I have witnessed and an evocative tribute to those who gave so much on those fields 150 years ago.

I am truly blessed to get to do what I do for the National Park Service!

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