Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A New Chapter Begins

Today is the last day of 2014. It was supposed to be my one day off of work this week, a break I had been looking forward to since I officially went operational on Christmas Eve. We had hoped to actually get out of the house and do something fun this afternoon/evening, but, while at work yesterday I received a phone call informing me that my day off was being canceled and I was being forced to come in for the afternoon/evening shift today. Alas someone has to work, and at the moment that someone is me. --When not enough people volunteer to work extra hours someone has to be forced, and who it is is determined by who has the least amount of overtime hours for the quarter. Since I came into the job in the final weeks of the quarter that means that, at the moment, I find myself at the bottom of that totem pole.-- So now I will soon head in to work day 10 of what now appears will be an initial 16 day run with no days off. In fact, when I hit my next scheduled day off on January 7, I will have had only one real day with no work or training since December 7.

While this intensive work schedule is certainly a challenging way to start the new job, it is not unexpected. My class is only the second to graduate after a long dry spell and, as one of the newest arrivals, it falls to me to work so that others don't have to. As we enter a new quarter beginning tomorrow, and with another class coming in at the end of January, the pressure will ease, but for now it is off to work once again.

Due to moving directly from training into being operational, the work schedule, and Alison's family visiting for the Christmas holiday, I have had little time to reflect on the fact that I have actually started the job. It has seemed like such a long process to get to this point, that it is taking a while to set in that the process is actually complete. A story that began More Than a Year Ago, that took me to Georgia for 3 Months, and that culminated in 17 Weeks of Training in Maryland, has now come to an end.

A new story began on December 12 when I reported to the White House for two weeks of "on the job" training. This training is normally three weeks long, but in an effort to get us out more quickly they compressed it to two weeks of 12 hour days. Our schedule was additionally compressed by canceling our days off in order to have us operational on Christmas Eve. It is these adjustments, and the need to accommodate others who were on Christmas leave, that has resulted in the schedule I described above.

One distinct advantage to working so much at Christmas time are the beautiful decorations. Both the interior and exterior of the house were adorned for the holiday and the National Christmas Tree (and accompanying state trees) on the Ellipse has been lit every night that I have been working.

I don't know anything more at this point with regard to be getting onto the team that conducts tours and special events. I have made my desire to be a part of it clearly known, and now I just have to wait and see. It remains my goal to become part of this team at the earliest available opportunity.

There are times when I have found the job less than stimulating, and it is certainly a challenge so work so often right now with so little control over my schedule. But I am also consistently amazed that I am where I am and honored to be doing what I am doing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Entering the Final Phase of Training

This week marks the halfway point of the second and final phase of my training. Exactly five months ago today I reported for my first day of training. It seemed then (and often since) like I would never finish the training process and actually start the job, but now that outcome is finally starting to look more likely. Eight weeks from tomorrow I will walk across a stage and be officially commissioned. That is still a rather strange thought to me, but it is one that is significantly less foreign than it once was.

The second phase of training has been very different than the first. Many of the categories (law, tactics, shooting, etc.) have been the same, but there are also a lot of new topics and a much more specific focus on the job I will actually be doing. This has been very helpful for me as the application of what I am learning has been much easier to visualize. Especially in light of recent events in the news, this specific training is of crucial importance to me being able to successfully do the job.

I had my seventh of ten written exams today, which leaves only three more until I can finally feel the relief of not having homework and things to study for. Last week I got dropped in a pool strapped in a "helicopter seat" upside down and had to successfully evacuate the simulated helicopter crash underwater.  I have done a lot of shooting with my sidearm as part of the training thus far, and on Friday I get to shoot the MP-5 for the first time, which I am looking forward to. I have only fired an airsoft version of a weapon like that before now.

It is starting to feel like the end is within sight, still a long way off, but at least within the range of my vision. But perhaps the most exciting part of what I have learned thus far is not something we have covered in the classroom or any of the practical training exercises. Ever since I first applied for this job my hope has been to end up giving tours of the White House. I had thought that I might have to wait a set period of months or even years before trying to achieve that goal, but it now appears that it just might be more attainable than I had anticipated. It turns out there is no particular time in service requirement for that particular position (as there is for many of the specialized positions), and the training is only a few weeks long. I don't know anything for sure yet, but it sounds like the most challenging obstacles will be convincing the supervisors of that section that they would want me, and then finding time to go through the additional training. If I can achieve those two things you might soon encounter me if you go on a tour of the President's Mansion.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Different Perspective: Seeing September 11 Through the Eyes of a Federal Law Enforcement Officer

This year, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 carries a new and greater significance for me. This new meaning is derived from two developments that occurred in my life in the first half of 2014. The first was that Alison and I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York. I had heard much about the new memorial, but had not yet had the chance to see it in person. By chance we ended up there on February 26, the anniversary of the first World Trade Center Bombing in 1993.

It was an especially poignant time to visit, since the monument memorializes, not only those who were killed at that site in 2001, but also those who perished in Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, as well as the victims of
of the 1993 bombing. Every day flowers are placed in the etched names of any victim who would have celebrated a birthday on that day. On February 26, a special group or roses adorned the section of the memorial dedicated to the 1993 attack.

The memorial is beautifully designed, with water pouring down on all four sides of the footprints of both the north and south towers. The water then pools together in the bottom, before plummeting down anew, into the unknown, beyond the scope of our vision. It is a simple design, but a highly evocative one that allows for personal interaction and poignant reflection.

Each of the names are etched into the sides of the memorial such that light can shine through at night and flowers can be placed inside each name in the manner described above. Several of those names are not names at all, but rather a denotation of unborn children who perished in their mother's womb before ever being given the chance to see the world at all.

In a nation where so many people fight to deny the unborn any recognition of life, it was particularly impactful for me to see those innocents memorialized in this manner.

The memorial also includes a special section devoted to the first responders who perished in their attempts to secure the scene and save the lives of anyone they could.

It is this section of the memorial that grips me the most as I sit down to write today. My perspective of the role of first responders has changed significantly as a result of the other new development I experienced this spring: being offered and accepting a permanent position helping to Protect and Interpret American History in our nation's capital.

I have spent the last four months in training learning what it means to be devoted to protecting the core of the United States of America. At its heart, the job is about safeguarding an idea, the idea that this nation is something special in the scope of world history. For all its faults (and I believe there are many), this nation and the manner in which it was created is truly unique. And I, for one, believe that it represents something that is worth fighting to sustain.

This final picture is one of my favorites that I took when we were in New York. In it you see a tree, just west of the south tower and south of the north tower, which still lives today, despite both towers coming down directly around it. Behind this tree can be seen the new World Trade Center building, rising above the city of New York as a symbol that that idea cannot be so easily overcome. Life that hung on through the devastation foregrounds reconstruction of a nation that accommodates remembrance and honor for the fallen.

So today, the 13th anniversary of the the 9/11 attacks, remember all of those who lost their lives that day, but give particular attention to the firefighters and law enforcement officers who rushed into danger to save others without hesitation. For many of them it was the last action they ever took, and that is something that is worth remembering.    

Previous Reflections

Monday, September 1, 2014

Embracing a New Identity

This Labor Day marks the first time since I began working at Wind Cave National Park in 2009 that I have actually been able to enjoy the holiday as a day off from labor. For the past five years I have either been working at a national park or having to spend the entire day writing my first paper of the semester for a graduate school class. Today I don't have to do either. It is a welcome break amid the stress of training, and a much needed day to catch up with numerous things requiring my attention, including finally getting a post  up on the blog for the first time since I wrote about a New Job Opportunity in April.

Much has happened since last I wrote, and future blog posts will include the details of my final NPS Civil War event at the Wilderness in May, attending my sister's college graduation in San Diego, my exploration of historical sites in the southeast, creating a new home in Washington D.C., and our visit to Acadia National Park. Today I would like to take a broader focus concerning the ways in which recent changes in our life and my experience in training has affected my perspective.

On May 14 I officially worked my last day as an employee of the National Park Service. It was a very strange feeling to drive away from my office at Manassas National Battlefield that day, not knowing if I would ever don the green and gray again. For the last five years I have consistently sought to secure a permanent position with the NPS, and in many ways it felt like a betrayal to be walking away from the agency to take a job somewhere else. But it was not for lack of trying. I feel confident that I have done everything within my power to try and get a permanent NPS position, and despite all of my efforts nothing has come through. It had been a difficult process for me to let go of the Park Service for this next chapter, but, at this stage it simply wasn't going to happen. I continue to believe that I will be a park ranger again one day, but until such a day arrives I am trusting that there is something new and significant in store for me where I am.

That same evening I officially graduated from George Mason University. I met Alison at the school after bidding farewell to Manassas and was awarded my Masters Degree at the Patriot Center. The juxtaposition of the grief of saying goodbye to the Park Service and the celebration of the ceremony to receive the reward for all the work I have done for school for the last 2.5 years was a compelling one. That proximity of loss, achievement, and excitement was made even more evident the next morning, when I reported for my first two days of orientation and training for the new job. Within the space of 15 hours I had left Manassas for the last time, been awarded my Masters Degree, and started a new job and whole new chapter of life.

Following that orientation, having spent less than a week in our new house in DC,  I packed up my car and drove to southern Georgia for three months of training.  I completed that training on August 11 and after a week off which we spent in Acadia National Park in Maine, I returned home to begin the second phase of training here in the DC area.

Going through the training in Georgia was, without question, one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was very difficult to be away from Alison for that long, especially so close on the heels of moving to a new house and finishing graduate school. It was also exceedingly challenging for me to face so many aspects of training that were so far outside my previous knowledge and experience. There were many times during the course of training (especially early on) when I didn't think I could finish it, and when I seriously questioned what I was doing there. It didn't seem to be the right fit and I struggled to accept that it was, in fact, what God had for us for this next chapter. It was so different than what I had thought and hoped we would be doing; moving closer to family with me working at one of the western national parks. But I persevered in faith that there was more at work than what I could see, believing that God had opened this door for a reason.

Even as I struggled to find my place within my class and to embrace this new identity, I sought to do my best in all of the aspects of training. In some areas (physical techniques, tactics, and many of the practical scenarios we were presented with) I was consistently behind the curve and fighting to achieve parity with others in my class to whom that type of thinking came much more naturally. But in other areas I found that I could, not only hold my own, but consistently excel. While I enjoyed the driving training and grew much more competent and confident in dealing with the practical scenarios, the two areas in which I consistently found myself at the head of my class were on the firearms range and in an academic setting.

I emerged as one of the top shots in my class and consistently performed well on the qualification courses, and found myself leading study groups before each of our major academic tests after I set myself apart by achieving the highest grade in the class on the first exam. When it came time to graduate I had the highest academic average in the class and was recognized for that achievement during the graduation ceremony.

So despite my initial doubts and my failure to see the way through early on, in persevering, I found my place after all, and consequently feel a much deeper sense of pride at identifying myself in this new role.

This past Friday evening I was driving back to our home on Capitol Hill from Virginia along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and as I came around a curve on the road, a perfectly clear night revealed our nation's capital in all of its glory across the Potomac River. In looking at the lights highlighting the Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and the US Capitol Building, I was poignantly reminded of the significance of what this city represents. I have had to suspend my dream of working as a ranger in one of the western parks, but the alternative of helping to protect and safeguard the heart of what makes this nation so unique is a pretty good one. And it turns out, I am a lot more suited for many aspects of the job than I had ever suspected. Apparently the big guy upstairs knew what he was doing after all.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Scent of Something New in the Air

These last few months have been pretty busy as I have attempted to finish my final semester of graduate school while also working full time and attempting to find new employment once I lose my current position when I graduate.

As of this morning I finally have an answer to the question of what I will be doing a month from now when school and my NPS position have come to an end. I will be helping to protect and interpret American history in our nation's capital.

Well, I won't actually be working just yet, but I will officially begin training on May 15. I will spend the first three months in Georgia followed by another four months back in Maryland.

This will be a very different position from anything I have done before, and certainly radically different from working for the National Park Service (NPS), but I am excited for the opportunity. Despite my best efforts I have been unable to secure any employment with the NPS when my current appointment expires (upon graduation), and of all the jobs I have applied for (over 300-I have lost track of the exact count), this is by far the best option that has come through. We had hoped to move back west once I graduated, but that is not to be. I did not receive a single job offer for any of the many positions I applied for west of the Mississippi, which is pretty clear guidance that staying here in the DC area is what the next chapter holds for us.

And that brings me to the other significant development, which is that we are moving back into the city, to live on Capitol Hill. We lucked into a great opportunity to live in close proximity to  several other families from church in a location that offers easy access to the metro and central DC as well as to Maryland and Virginia. It is a fairly ideal location for this new job and will greatly aid us in being able to be more involved at church and invested in the lives of friends.We will be living in a row house with three bedrooms, which gives us much more space than our current basement apartment and opens up the possibility of hosting guests and having children.

We are actually starting the move this weekend and will transfer completely to our new house by the end of April. That means that the first few weeks of May will mark the end of graduate school, a move into DC, and training for a new job.

There is certainly the scent of something new in the air in these early weeks of spring!

These past few weeks, as we have slowly transitioned form winter to spring, have provided me with a variety of unique photographic and video opportunities as well.

This winter I started doing some video work for the Civil War Trust, which has included a behind the scenes visit to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and a tour of privately owned land over which the Battle of North Anna was fought in May, 1864. On March 14-16 I attended the Civil War Trust's  Color Bearer Weekend in Winchester, VA in order to produce This Video highlighting the tours and activities, much as I have done for NPS events.

I ended March with a journey north to Valley Forge National Historical Park to film and photograph a special living history program on the "Incomparable Patience and Fidelity" of the colonial troops. It was my first official coverage of a Revolutionary War event and a fun opportunity in the waning days of my position.

This last week marked the arrival of the Cherry Blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. I only made it out one morning, but, in addition to the pictures in the link above, I also filmed timelapse of the sunrise and early morning light on the blossoms and crowds gathering along the basin, which you can see in this video: The Cherry Blossoms Come to Life


Only a few days after the cherry blossoms emerged, the Virginia Bluebells joined them. I went out and took a few pictures and also filmed timelapse and video using a slider in order to create this video of the Bluebells Along Bull Run.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Moving Into a New Year

The winter weather in Northern Virginia has been significantly colder this year than any of the previous years I have lived in the area. When I got in the car this morning it was 4 degrees, indicative of temperatures that have hovered between 0-20 with windchills in the negative teens for the past several days. My blood is not used to that kind of cold! But it isn't always like that. On Monday it got up into the upper 50s, enabling Alison and I to go on a 15 mile bike ride in the afternoon since I had the day off work as a federal holiday. That night the temperatures plummeted, however, and it snowed all day Tuesday, accumulating at least 6 inches where we live. In the midst of the snow Alison and I took advantage of the slope of our driveway to engage in some Sledding. It was actually surprisingly fun and we got some Pretty Good Runs in.

This weather stands in sharp contrast to a beautiful fall. As you may have gathered by the fact that I have not posted since the end of October, the final months of 2013 were filled with activity. As I detailed in my post about The Changing Tides of Life last August, in order to finish my masters degree this coming May I took three classes last semester. I knew this was going to be a challenge when I did it, and it proved to be every bit as hard as I had imagined. In addition to going to class three nights a week, over the course of the semester I wrote 10 papers and read 47 books. Somehow I managed to get it all finished, completing my last paper at 4 am the day it was due. This coming Monday I will attend the first meeting of my research seminar, the final hurdle that remains before I am awarded the degree.

In the midst of all the school work Alison and I enjoyed visits with both of our families. Her parents came out to see us in October and, in addition to an trip through the Pennsylvania countryside in pursuit of family history, joined us in our annual trip to the National Apple Festival in Adams County, PA and helped us conquer the Corn Maze for the fourth year in a row.

A few weeks later we joined my Mom, sisters, and their significants in San Diego in a celebratory weekend in honor of my Mom's 60th birthday. It also provided an opportunity for Alison to see my alma mater and a chance to visit my youngest sister Callie in her element at Point Loma Nazarene University before she graduates in May. We arrived just in time to join her and her friends at a Harry Potter party on Halloween.

Despite our lack of proper attire, with a quick flick of some eyeliner and a loan of her glasses, Callie christened us as Harry and Ginny for the evening.

The weather was warm enough during our visit to allow us to enjoy some quality time on the beach, complete with the construction of an epic sandcastle complex, smashball, kite flying, and even boogie boarding.

The highlight of the visit was a sunset cruise out of Mission Bay, which lived up to expectations and provided for a beautiful trip out into the ocean.

My Last Post in October described my ten day trip to Chickamauga, a trip that will likely prove to be my last major Civil War sesquicentennial event. This did not turn out to be my final chance to contribute to the commemoration of the Civil War, however. During the month of November I ended up having the opportunity to return to two of the parks that had hosted week-long events earlier in the year for two smaller, but important, pieces of the story.

The first was to Pennsylvania for the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address where I had the chance to photograph, video, and even converse with renowned Civil War historian James McPherson, NPS Director Jon Jarvis, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, among others. It was a moving tribute to the impact of the words that Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863.

As  part of the coverage of the event I put filmed, edited, and produced two videos:

~The first was released before the event as a promotion of the significance of Lincoln's "Few Appropriate Remarks".

~The second is a record of the actual Commemorative Ceremony.

The very next weekend I drove back to the South to help with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Chattanooga in Tennessee. 

The last signs of fall still remained on Lookout Mountain and I captured some memorable images of Confederates walking the same paths that were used during the successful Union assault on Lookout Mountain during the "Battle Above the Clouds" 150 years previously.
It was quite chilly in Chattanooga as well, but I was kept busy moving from one place to another to get pictures and footage for a video of the event.

The trip was a fitting way to close the year and, perhaps, my tenure as an NPS photographer and videographer.

This Video of the weekend at Chattanooga is the result of my efforts.

Just days after returning from Tennessee we were off again, this time to squeeze in a visit to Livermore for a late Thanksgiving celebration and the wedding of one of Alison's childhood friends.

Over Christmas we enjoyed time with Both of Our Families, including the celebration of Baby Noah's first birthday and Christmas day with a good portion of Alison's extended family in Colorado.

We made it to Arizona as well, where we took advantage of the warmer weather to barbeque, work on leveling the yard at my Mom's house, and go hiking in the Phoenix Mountain Preserves with my Dad.

Just before leaving for the holidays, in the midst of my final papers, Alison and I were blessed with a unique opportunity to visit the White House at Christmas.

It was fun to see all the Christmas decorations, especially since the White House has been closed to the public since the sequester took hold a year ago.

The visit was made even more memorable by the fact that we could actually bring a camera and take pictures, something you are normally strictly prohibited from doing.

As we look toward the end of my masters program, we are also facing the prospect of me losing my current position and being unemployed once again.

After five years with the Park Service I have been continually frustrated by my lack of ability to get more than a temporary position and now that I have a family to think about as well, I am having to take seriously the prospect that I might have to look elsewhere for employment. 

I have been applying for all sorts of positions, ranging from a wide variety within the Park Service, to working for the concessionaire in Yosemite, to being an outdoor school instructor at REI, to helping to protect and interpret American history in our nation's capital.

We don't know what 2014 will hold or where we will be come May, but it is entirely possible that we will be staying in DC a bit longer after all.