Hey Grad School! Here I… Can’t Come

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One of the other things we did for fun on the Gettysburg Volunteer Service Vacation was go on a tour of Barksdale’s Charge with a licensed battlefield guide. (No, Pickett wasn’t the only one who charged at Gettysburg.) I’ve always wanted to take a tour with a licensed guide so I was super excited to do this. Actually, I’ve been interested in becoming a licensed guide myself, but I wasn’t sure what steps to take to get there.

I do know there is a long application process before someone gets their badge and license, and most people aren’t able to get through all the steps. So I’ve always been able to talk myself out of trying. However, after the trip to Gettysburg I was determined to go for it. If I failed, at least I’d tried. Since my undergraduate degree is in International Studies, I decided to look in to grad school programs with a focus on Civil War Studies. One of the things I learned in Gettysburg was that a lot of people trying to become licensed guides come with a fantastic knowledge of Gettysburg, but don’t know much about the rest of the Civil War and that’s where they get tripped up in the process. The program obviously wants people who know Gettysburg well, but knowledge of the war as a whole is important too.

I talked to a few family members and friends, all of whom told me to go for it yesterday. Once I had some gentle encouragement and one Gibbs’ head slap (Thanks Amy.) I started really looking for programs. I found what seemed to be a good online program and asked my college professor sister to take a look at it. Once she said it looked good I applied. I was accepted right away, and the financial side of things fell into place pretty easily as well. By the end of October, I had everything squared away for my classes to start in December. I needed to order the books, but they weren’t all listed on the website yet. I knew ordering books wouldn’t take long once I knew what I needed and I’d have everything ready to be a student again.

I was a little nervous about going back to school, but I was excited to take the first step towards my eventual goal.

So everything was going great, right? Here’s where I got black flagged on the last lap

In November, about two weeks before my first classes were going to start, I got diagnosed with breast cancer. After talking to my oncologist and coming to understand what all was going to be involved in my treatment, I made the decision to withdraw from my grad school classes. I was upset but I realized that this was a postponement, not a cancellation.

I don’t know when I’ll sign up for school again, but I will. In talking with a friend she suggested other leads for programs of Civil War study. I haven’t explored them yet but I’m going to check on her tips before re-applying to my original school choice.

And as it turns out, I learned a lot over the past 9 months of cancer treatment, though it is a whole different kind of educational program. But more on that another day.

Fence Building and Presidential Farms

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So I recently discovered that I can still log in to this thing and as it’s been a year since I posted anything I thought I ought to either dust it off and start writing again or shut it down. I’ve decided to try option number one first.

Since my last post referenced a failed attempt to skip going to Gettysburg last year, I thought I’d start there.

The Volunteer Service Vacation in Gettysburg was awesome. They aren’t offering it this year and that would really bum me out if I thought I’d be able to go. More on that some other time.

As this was a working vacation, we had various projects throughout the park to keep us busy during the day. We got to build fences near General Meade’s headquarters. We built split rail and Virginia worm fence, and per the park rangers who helped us those fences will stand in place for about the next ten years.

We also did a lot of scraping and painting picket fences. Scraping and painting fence is boring unless you have really good company. I had a fabulous work group and our fence scraping and painting was fun. We mostly worked on the fence around the Snyder Farm. What was really cool is that one of the ranger supervisors let our group walk through the farm house, which is normally locked and not open to the public. Per the guy who supervised us on that project, he worked at the park for ten years and didn’t get to go in that house until he went in with us. Our fence also faced the Round Tops, so we couldn’t have asked for better scenery.

As I posted updates on our activities on social media, a friend asked me how any of this constituted a vacation as it sounded more like an Amish nightmare. All I can say is that I was so happy to get to be a part of helping maintain the battlefield that I didn’t care much what they had us doing.

On another day we went to President Eisenhower’s farm, which was the only home he and his wife ever owned themselves. When we got there we were greeted outside the house by the head housekeeper, who was very stern in her explanation of how those of us who would be working in the house had to be super careful with everything because the entire contents of the house were priceless and irreplaceable. As she talked, I think a lot of us were getting uneasy about going to help inside. The leaders explained that they were splitting us in to two groups and when they called for volunteers to work outside in the barn almost every guy in the group went running that way. A few brave guys and all the ladies ended up working in the house.

Once we had our protective booties on inside the house, they further split us into three groups. My group’s first assignment was to assist a housekeeper in President Eisenhower’s library. Yes, I got to dust some of his books. That was easily one of the coolest moments of my life. Bookworm + touching books that belonged to a president = day made. We had to wear gloves but I can still stay I held some of President Eisenhower’s books in my hands. We also found one that he apparently read while eating a chocolate bar and we all agreed that this was a bad move on his part.

I also got to polish a silver cigarette case and dust silk roses that belonged to Mrs. Eisenhower.

Funny story while I was dusting roses. We were there to help the housekeeping staff get the house ready for a big World War II event happening the following weekend. Lots of people coming for the event got there early and wanted to tour the house before it was too crowded. So I was sitting on the floor on the restricted side of a velvet rope dusting flowers and minding my own business while groups of people walked through the room on tour.  As each group walked through, a park ranger would offer some information about the room and some of the various items on display. At the end of each presentation, the ranger would ask if anyone had any questions. I got a few curious looks, but most people smiled politely and kept walking.

It went fine until a group of elderly people on tour came through. I could hear a few ladies whispering even as the ranger was talking. The minute he asked for questions the loudest whisperer pointed right at me and said “What’s she doing?!” From her tone you would have thought that I was spray painting the walls. The ranger explained why we were there and that I was dusting silk roses that had belonged to Mrs. Eisenhower. Once she understood why I was there, Ms. Loud Whisperer changed her tone to something much nicer and asked me if I ever thought I’d get to do that and I answered honestly that I never dreamed of something like that, but that I was thrilled to do it.

I have to admit that working on the silk roses was also a little bit scary. I was working about a foot away from a beautiful black table with a mother of pearl design on the top. It was priceless and irreplaceable and had been a gift from a foreign leader to the Eisenhowers. Putting someone as clumsy as me near that table probably wasn’t a good idea. Just off to one side was a Persian rug that had been given to the Eisenhowers by the Shah of Iran. I had to strategically plan my moves so I didn’t get too close to the rug or the table or anything else I could have bumped or stepped on while I was in there. But I left the room in the same condition I found it, except that the silk roses weren’t as dusty.

To be fully honest, I’d seen the Eisenhower Farm tour buses in Gettysburg for years, and was never all that interested in going out there. Now that I’ve gotten to tour the house and the barns, I wonder why I waited so long. And to be honest, since I got to work in the house I’m kind of biased now. Anyone who goes to Gettysburg with me in the future better plan on a trip to the Eisenhower Farm and a complete tour of the things I got to work on while we were there.

One of the fun activities they planned for us was an underbelly tour of the Visitor’s Center museum. We got to go behind the cyclorama and see the weights and temperature sensors that hold it in place and constantly monitor for changes that would indicate a problem with the painting. I love the cyclorama so this was another day made moment for me. It’s hard to tell from the front just how massive the painting is, so to see it from behind was amazing.

They showed us the control room for the various multimedia presentations that play in the museum. We got to see the control center for the HVAC system and got a brief demonstration of how the computers regulate the building temperatures. The building director told us he can control certain things through his cell phone from home. We jokingly asked if there’s an app for that and he said there is. We discovered just how environmentally friendly the museum and the surrounding grounds are.

Going back to the Eisenhower Farm for a moment, those of us who worked in the house were pleasantly surprised by how nice the head housekeeper turned out to be. She takes her responsibility of preserving the house very seriously and that’s why she came across so stern at first, but she was super helpful and very supportive of us once we got going on our tasks. The chickens guys who worked outside didn’t believe those of us who worked in the house when we told them how nice she really was.

So as we walked through the underbelly of the museum, we walked past a staff break room and heard a loud voice go “ARE THOSE MY PEOPLE?!” The head housekeeper from the Eisenhower Farm came running out of the break room and started hugging everyone. Getting to tell the guys “I told you so” was fun and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I said it. The guys who hadn’t believed us when we said she was nice looked a little shell-shocked as she hugged them too.

The best thing about this trip was the people on our team. At the end of four days of working together on projects and hanging out in the evenings it started to feel like a family. We went to dinner and got ice cream in groups. A few of the guys took a bunch of chairs from the pool area so we could sit outside our hotel rooms and chat. Those of us with Facebook still keep in touch and share pictures that way.

I don’t know that I’ll get to visit Gettysburg this year, so I’m thankful for the memories of last year. It was truly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, anywhere.