A Visit to Gettysburg

Back in November I took a one-credit undergraduate history class through the University of Maryland University College on the Battle of Gettysburg. Although I live only about an hour-and-a-half away from the battlefield and have visited it several times, I had never actually studied anything about the area. Our history classes in junior high and high school always seemed to get stuck on the Civil War, but somehow they never really seemed to teach us much about the war itself. I decided it was time to really learn something about such an important event.

The class itself was conducted over two weekends. On the first Saturday, we spent the day in the classroom learning about the basics of the battle. We talked about terrain and tactics, and the kinds of weapons that were used, and why the American Civil War is considered to be the first “modern” war. We also talked about the Union and Confederate armies, their strengths and weaknesses, and a bit about the personalities of the leaders. I learned more in that one day about the Civil War and Gettysburg than I had ever been taught in all the years of public school history that I’d had to take.

Our second class was a field trip to the battlefield. We drove ourselves there and met up at the new Visitor’s Center. During the day, we watched a movie, toured the museum, and then had lunch. Afterward, we went outside to walk the battlefield. The mid-November day was overcast and it even snowed a little. We were cold, but the walking and climbing (Gettysburg battlefield is not flat) kept us warm. I had worn a pedometer that day so I could see how much we walked, but somehow I managed to reset it. I’m fairly certain that we walked at least five miles. Later, we returned to the Visitor’s Center and had our final exam. We sat on benches by the window or at empty lunch tables and did our paperwork. It was the most unusual final exam that I’ve taken.

Gettysburg is well worth a visit, not only for the Civil War buffs, but for anyone who wants to learn a little more about our country’s history. I would recommend to anyone who wants to visit that they do a little background reading before getting to the battlefield park, because understanding the events that took place here gives meaning to the monuments. And there are a lot of monuments at Gettysburg; plan to spend a day or more touring the battlefield and Visitor’s Center. But don’t rush home — the town itself is also worth a visit and has numerous restaurants, boutiques, and Civil War related stores.

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Photo: This mile marker is one of several at the Pennsylvania Memorial in Gettysburg National Military Park.

Main Street, Laurel

When you read a novel or watch a movie on TV, a town’s main street is often depicted as a bustling center of activity, the busy heart of town where all the locals shop. Perhaps that is still true for many places, but in the suburban town that I grew up in, we didn’t even have a main street. Instead, we had a highway.

Today I live in College Park. Although College Park does technically have a main street — and the city proclaims it from colorful banners that hang from the streetlamps through the central part of town — that street is U.S. Route 1, a heavily travelled thoroughfare that bisects College Park on its way north towards Baltimore.

Route 1 is traffic congestion central. Crossing this busy strip of asphalt is no easy task for a pedestrian, and the main street that results has more in common with a strip mall that it does with the mild-mannered, pedestrian friendly main street that most people associate with the name.

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In contrast, Laurel’s Main Street is the kind of road that you associate with the name. It has restaurants and stores, a church, a post office, and even apartment buildings and homes. The only thing missing on Main Street is a gas station — but for that you need only to drive a few more blocks south or west.

Although it has a variety of stores, Main Street is a curious mixture of past and not-quite-present. That’s because it really isn’t the center of town life anymore — that title goes to our friend, Route 1. Sidelined but not out of the game, Main Street has instead become a haven for art galleries, antique stores, and one-of-a-kind boutiques.

At the western end, Main Street boasts a professional center, built from brick and styled to blend in with the existing local architecture. There, dentists, doctors, and lawyers ply their trades alongside the barbeque restaurant and sandwich store. The professional center’s parking lot is behind the buildings and backs up to the Patuxent River. To the east there’s a railway station which is still in use as a busy commuter hub.

I decided to do my photojournalism class project, which I finished in May, on Laurel’s Main Street. As luck would have it, every weekend when I had time to take photos, it rained. No matter, though, because I like rainy weather photos. There is a timeless nature to rainy days, and the diffuse lighting offers a chance to take pictures without having to worry about which direction the sun is coming from, or whether or not the harsh shadows will lose detail in the photograph. Also, the reflections can be wonderfully artistic additions to an otherwise bland photograph. It’s just a matter of how you use them.

A Blog A Day Keeps Boredom Away

What if you could pick someone from the past and select them to be a blogger? Whose posts would you want to read? This is the question asked by Lorelle VanFossen on this week’s blog challenge.

The idea seemed like a lot of fun (and a good way to generate material for Focal Plane, as well). I thought about the topic for awhile, and came up with a few historical figures I’d like to read — Alexander the Great, King Arthur, and the American civil-war era photographer Mathew Brady.

I figure that most writers of yore have either already written about themselves or their writing processes, or just prefer to be recluses. I decided to look elsewhere for stories, to the people who were making history.

Brady interests me because I am a photographer, and I’ve just completed a photojournalism class. I’ve always felt a bit of a chill looking at his civil war photos, and it would be interesting to find out what Brady was thinking as he planned his shots. But, it’s the shadowy figures from the Classical Age of Greece and Rome, or the Age of Chivalry that appeal to my sense of adventure. But would any of those people make good bloggers?


It’s the shadowy figures from the Classical Age … or the Age of Chivalry that appeal to my sense of adventure. But would any of those people make good bloggers?

I decided that Alex probably was too busy conquering the world to bother putting stylus to slate, so I nixed that idea. I didn’t know if the historians had concluded whether or not King Arthur is a real figure or a legend, so that idea went down the middens. Mathew Brady would be interesting, but his darkroom work would probably have kept him from having too much time to write.

Then, it came to me. Benjamin Franklin! He’d not only be a natural — he’d also be a prolific blogger. His posts would be witty and full of common sense, not the least because they would all be posted early in the morning! He would be probably be offline by 7 p.m., though, so he could get to bed early.

Actually, Franklin would probably have several blogs. One would be the online version of Poor Richard’s Almanac, and would feature posts about business, thrift, saving, and other budget-wise topics. It would also contain a calendar, weather predictions, and astronomical information for farmers. The pages on this blog would contain a compendium of Franklin’s famous sayings.

Franklin’s second blog would detail all the juicy court gossip and intrigues during his trips abroad as a diplomat. There would be all sorts of stories from France, where Franklin served as ambassador. He apparently went about dressed in a coonskin hat and charmed the society ladies with his “frontier” dress. This blog would overshadow any of today’s society pages with tales of his diplomatic hijinks.


Benjamin Franklin would be a prolific blogger, and probably have more than one blog.

A third blog would be about American politics, and be named after his political discussion club, Junto. This blog would feature serious political discussions, although it might contain a political cartoon or two (just to get a point across) to help make the blog more visual and user-friendly. Franklin would write about the philosophy of the fledgling American republic, and actively encourage readers to comment on this blog. Lively debates would ensue and overload servers across the nation!

A fourth blog would be the online compendium of Franklin’s autobiography, which took him at least 17 years to write. That’s a lot of blogging, isn’t it? This blog could also serve as a family photo album.

And finally, Franklin would have a blog about science. This blog would feature animations and technical drawings showing how the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and lightning rod worked. Franklin would also definitely include YouTube video clips of his now-famous kite-flying experiment.

Well, there you have it. Franklin had a lot to write about back in his day, and if he had access to a word processor he probably would have been even more prolific a writer, if that’s at all possible. Access to blogging software and social networking sites might have involved Franklin in even more areas of pursuit, as he came across people on the internet from many more countries and walks of life. He would have been an active reader and commenter on the blogs and forums that he came upon.

But that’s all my conjecture, anyway, and I certainly don’t claim to be a historian even if I am an avid History Channel viewer. One thing that is definte — the blog challenge has not only given me a good way to spark my writing, it has helped produce the longest post I’ve written so far. I hope you enjoyed reading it.