Gettysburg, then and now

The names and faces of war casualties take up two walls of the Gettysburg exhibit and still represent a small fraction of those who died during three days of fighting in early July 1863. The death toll reached 11,000. There were another 40,000 casualties — wounded, captured or missing. 

A visit last week to the Civil War battleground museum in Gettysburg served as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the past 153 years and, jarringly, how far we still have to go.

As one museum plaque says, “Americans fought one another over three fundamental issues: the survival of the Union, the fate of slavery, and the common rights of citizenship — what it means to be American. The war resolved the first two issues. The nation struggles with the third to this day.”  

Another plaque notes that people living in the United States in the mid- to late 1800s “included new immigrants, American Indians, slaves, free blacks – men, women, and children. But with a few exceptions, only white males over 21 enjoyed all the rights of citizenships, including the right to vote.”

Sadly, not only do efforts to impose voting restrictions prevail, but so does the inhumane treatment of those living within the nation’s borders, including the most recent iteration of a relentless crackdown on immigrant communities — the recent separation of nearly 2,000 immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border, a practice condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics for causing “irreparable harm.”

Gettysburg Address

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

So begins the Gettysburg Address, a speech of a mere 272 words that Abraham Lincoln gave at a memorial service for the thousands who perished on 9.3 square miles of land in and around Gettysburg, PA. 

At the time, the Gettysburg Address received mixed reviews. Some gave it high praise. “His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma,” said the Republican, published in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Others did not. “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln. Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce,” said the London Times.

The photo above depicts a distant view of the monument marking the place where Lincoln spoke. The monument is surrounded by low lying cement markers for the deceased. Today, visitors honor the site by placing pennies — heads up — on the monument and nearby tombstones.

 

Ghost Tours

As one might expect, ghost tours abound in Gettysburg. Asked about the possibility of encountering ghoulish specters in and around town, a park ranger rolled his eyes. “I’ve been on the battlefield all hours of the night and day, and I’ve never seen a ghost,” he said. But the tours, he added, offer up insights into what happened in the days leading up to, during, and after the single most pivotal and bloody battle in the Civil War. 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

The F Street underpass: Where the twain do meet

It was about a year ago today on a trip out West when I first learned about the F Street underpass, a little known but pivotal gateway in the city of Las Vegas. It connects an area known as West Las Vegas to the city’s downtown. West Las Vegas is a historically black neighborhood where restaurants, nightclubs and casinos once thrived. Ironically, desegregation policies would precipitate its decline. As affluent African Americans left West Las Vegas, their former neighborhood lost its economic base, leaving room for both gang wars and urban blight to flourish. Revitalization efforts include a new park adjacent to the F Street underpass as well as beautifully crafted, tiled renditions of African American leaders in the underpass itself. What proponents of the revamped underpass failed to take into account, however, is its close proximity to the city’s homeless corridor, which led to another ironic twist. The F Street underpass has become an alluring way station for several of the roughly 6,500 homeless people who call the streets of Las Vegas home. #lasvegas#homelessness #FStreetunderpass #travelohotography #travelblogger

 

Harbingers of Springs

These flowers started out in a friend’s yard in Amissville, VA. She brought them to a dinner party Saturday night in Marshall, VA. I brought them from Marshall to Washington, DC. We’re doing our best to spread springtime mojo in hopes that Old Man Winter has decided to chill, so to speak, for a good long while.

Harpers Ferry: War and Peace

Crossing the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, an area where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet and three states — West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia — converge. This town of roughly 300 people changed hands 14 times during the Civil War. Known for a raid on a national armory and an attempted slave rebellion led by abolitionist John Brown, Harpers Ferry is now the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.#appalachiantrail #potomacriver #shenandoahriver#harpersferry #travelblogger

Southbound — San Francisco to Vegas

Muir Woods National Monument

The second leg of my California journey began when I showed up on the doorstep of my friend Dennis who lives in the suburban Bay Area community of Walnut Creek. His home was my home for a couple of days while I saw some of the sites in and around San Francisco. With Dennis guiding the way, our first stop was Muir Woods National Park and its 200 plus acres of California redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.

The drive took us through Berkeley and up and down the hairpin turns of Muir Woods Road before we reached the park’s entrance. It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, but neither the precipitation nor the occasional congestion of tourists on the trails detracted from the experience of walking through a wonderland of nature-made skyscrapers. Apart from the enormity of the trees, the first thing to catch one’s attention is the smell. It’s pungent and pleasing in the same way eucalyptus is, but earthy, woodsy, and musty.

Muir Woods National Park

Coincidentally, on the same day we went to Muir Woods, a video circulated on Facebook about the health benefits of “forest bathing.” A Japanese study found that trees emit a protective oil that is also beneficial to people. No running, rock climbing, or strenuous activity is required. Mere contemplation among trees slows down heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress.

My own unscientific conclusion is this: the taller the tree the better, so the best of all possible places “to bathe” in a forest must be the seven-county expanse where Muir Woods is located. Five of the counties are in northern California, two are in southern Oregon, and combined, they form the Redwood Empire.

Northbound — Costa Mesa to San Francisco

Pismo Beach, Calif.

Finding myself living in Las Vegas (long story), I decided to make a trek up the California coast and back down again, beginning in Costa Mesa, home of a dear childhood friend who graciously put out the welcome mat for me four months ago when I first landed in the Pacific time zone. From Costa Mesa, I meandered north, stopping in Hermosa Beach to have lunch with a fellow education reporter from my writing days for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Next up was a nearly 400-mile stretch to the Bay Area in and around San Francisco to visit with fellow reporters from way back, from the 1980s when I was working for United Press International in Guatemala. The best part of my California journey was seeing old friends and colleagues, but the scenery wasn’t bad either. Here are a few highlights from the trip north.

COSTA MESA

The CAMP parking lot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

In Costa Mesa, a coffee shop called the Blackmarket Bakery very quickly became my office. It’s located in a wonderful cluster of restaurants, shops, and cafes called The CAMP, where the parking spaces say it all. Instead of numbers to be punched into a parking meter, each one has a zen-like message. Two of my favorites were “Follow New Trails” and “See the Forest.” And the pastries at the Blackmarket Bakery, especially a bread pudding made from chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and molasses toffee cookies, are delicious.

Also worth checking out in and around Costa Mesa are the meandering marshland trails of the Newport Back Bayand Crystal Cove State Park, 2,400 acres of seaside wilderness that that includes 3.2 miles of coastline, a remodeled seaside colony from the early 1900s, and 15 miles of hiking trails, not to mention the vast selection of top-rated milkshakes at Ruby’s Shake Shack.

Newport Back Bay, Costa Mesa, Calif.

HERMOSA BEACH

My next stop was Hermosa Beach, which packs a lot into its 1.5 square-mile expanse — most notably biking, bars, sunbathing, surfing, and, above all, volleyball. I’m guessing there are good eats in Hermosa at every turn. If you’re looking for a low-key sandwich shop with sidewalk seating, Gum Tree Shop & Café is a good place to go, and its turkey, tomato, and avocado sandwich with sweet chili aioli on sourdough proved to be a good choice for lunch. 

Leaving, Hermosa Beach, I headed north with no agenda other than to skip some of the main attractions — e.g., Hollywood Boulevard, Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle — and to keep an eye out for off-the-beaten-path destinations, which led me to the following gems….

Walking on the Edge

The edge of the Grand Canyon was a mere few feet away, and I was torn. Everyone else, it seemed, was walking up to it and posing for pictures. Children ran around with an enormous amount of freedom given that certain death was just a slip of the foot away. And there I stood, camera in hand, desperately wanting to capture the depth of what I saw, yet worried that one minor misstep and over the edge I’d go.

I wasn’t alone. There were others who were skittish of the canyon’s edge. One was a roofer — either professional or amateur, I’m not sure. What was clear is that he knew his way around a roof, yet he was the one in his group most ill at-ease near the canyon’s edge. In response to a little teasing from his friends, he had these words of wisdom: “A roof is only 20 feet up, maybe 24. The fall isn’t going to kill you.”

Another skittish visitor at Guano Point, located along a stretch of the canyon’s west rim located on land owned by the Hualapai Tribe, asked a security guard for advice. This is what he had to say: “As long as you stay six feet away, you can’t go over.” 

Good to know.

Six feet, however, is too far away to get a good sense – much less photos – of the canyon’s depth, so I joined the brave and skirted along the edge. I walked very carefully at first, making sure I’d found a secure foothold before raising my camera and clicking away, desperately trying to capture the contours, the ridges, the sheer magnitude of this twisting, turning, 277-mile hallway that Mother Nature’s glacier-paced bulldozer — the Colorado River – has been digging over the course of millions of years.

Capturing the grandness of the Grand Canyon on film proved to be a challenge. But what I learned in the process is that by staying focused on the one thing, the camera’s lens, the other thing, the fear of walking near the edge, started to wane. It didn’t go away, which, is a good thing given the precipice at my feet, but a sense of sure-footedness returned. That feeling alone was worth the trip.

Jimmy Carter Inspires as Sunday School Commander in Chief

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President Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church. Jan Williams, in the background, keeping an eye on the class.

George Williams arrives at the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot in Plains, Georgia, Sunday mornings at 5 a.m. to give out numbers to those who show up for President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. My friend Sharon and I pulled into the lot at around 6 a.m. last Sunday, early enough to be third in line and get a front row seat just a couple of feet from where Carter would speak later in the morning.

But first things first.

We still had four hours to go – an hour of waiting in the car, an hour allotted for visitors to file through the Secret Service checkpoint, and two hours of the Jan Williams show, a delightful blend of humor and menace aimed at keeping us entertained while making sure that no one broke any of the rules involved in attending Sunday school with the 39th president of the United States.

Jan is George’s wife as well as a no-nonsense former teacher who, no doubt, had few, if any, discipline problems in her classroom, and she wasn’t going to have any with us. When Carter walked into the church sanctuary, she told us not to stand up or applaud; during the photo op, he would be seated on a stool and we would not shake his hand or put our hand on his shoulder; nor would we talk to him other than to say “Good morning. Glad to be here,” and if we did address him by name, President Carter or Mr. Carter would be “perfectly fine.” Mr. President, she said, was not an option, because he’s not the president, and references to him being an ex or former president were not necessary.

“He’s aware of that,” Jan said.

As 10 a.m. approached, Jan wrapped things up by telling us she ‘d be standing at the front of the church, off to the side. “All you have to do,” she said, “is glance my way and you can tell if you are the gifted class or not.” With that reminder, she took her place on the sidelines, and President Carter walked into the room.

Windows on the World

I am thrilled to see that the Tarboro Brewing Company, the latest culinary contribution to Eastern North Carolina by Inez and Stephen Ribustello, opened its doors last weekend. The duo met nearly 20 years ago while working at Windows on the World, the cluster of bars and restaurants that — prior to Sept. 11, 2001 — catered to tourists at the top of the World Trade Center. Working there in the late 1990s and early 2001s is how the Ribustellos learned much of what they know about food, beverages and the pairing of the two. They subsequently took that knowledge, along with a natural knack for entertaining and making people feel at home, and opened On the Square, a dining experience that brings people from up and own the East Coast to the most unlikely of tourist destinations — downtown Tarboro, NC. Last year I wrote about Inez and Stephen and their culinary journey for the Carolina Alumni Review and am pleased to see that what was then a mere dream in the making — the Tarboro Brewing Company — is now yet another “window” in their world.

Leveling the Playing Field

Say Yes_Not Just About More Time

My latest, a white paper for Say Yes to Education that looks at the merits of providing at-risk youth with the kinds of services they need to address the barriers that often prevent them from showing up at school on time, if at all, much less doing well while they’re there or finding the time or the place in what can be a chaotic home life to focus on dividends, quotients and divisors, for example, or the difference between peak, peak and pique.

The work of Say Yes to Education is part of an ever increasing effort on the part of school systems and education organizations to level the playing field for disadvantaged youth by removing socioeconomic impediments and educational barriers brought about by decades of institutionalized racism. The Say Yes approach, which builds on the work of other organizations, such as Communities in Schools, is twofold. And it’s massive.

On a community-wide level in places like Syracuse, Buffalo, and Guilford County, North Carolina, it works with local entities to bring a broad spectrum of support services — everything from the arts to counseling to legal assistance — into or as near the school house door as possible, all of it intended to mitigate or overcome the obstacles that often come with a life lived in poverty.

Once these young people complete high school, diploma in hand, the second part of the Say Yes program kicks in – the promise of a college scholarship. By working with local philanthropists to raise money for a scholarship fund, Say Yes guarantees that all eligible graduates will be able to attend an in-state public college or university or one of the more than 100 private institutions that are part of the Say Yes program.