Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Gettysburg, Day 2: An Historic (and Slightly Haunted) Dinner
So, believe it or not, there’s more to tell about Day 2 at Gettysburg. An action-packed day indeed, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the second day was long for the soldiers in the Civil War battle, too!
Following an afternoon playing my own great-grandmother before a nineteenth-century camera, evening brought yet another opportunity for time travel—we met the lovely Emerald and her partner in adventure, Rick Write, for dinner at the historic Farnsworth House. My oldest sister was also joining us as she was already in town for the family reunion the next day. It was indeed a thrill to see Emerald, and in a way it’s as if we’d just seen each other a month rather than almost a year before (at In the Flesh’s Oral Sex Night). Talk about tricks of time!
Because our reservation was at seven, we had some leisure to walk around the town, which was feeling very much like home to me now. When I first arrived, my mind was buzzing with hazy memories from my many visits, but it seemed as if they were coming into focus. I could really appreciate the place in a new way, and I wonder if my writer’s way of taking in the world had something to do with it? In any case, although I don’t live close anymore, Gettysburg felt more like “mine” than ever before in my life. Not quite sure why, but it was a good feeling.
Our first stop was a gallery of a Civil War-themed artist (whose name I forget, but it’s right there near the square). Apparently he was known for his historical accuracy in portraying battle scenes, although my fancy was taken with a very romantic and surely anachronistic tableau of a southern belle kissing her officer lover among the magnolias, while the rest of the couples at the ball looked on approvingly. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, a suggestive group-sex dynamic, and all in extravagant costume (how do you do it in the garden in a hoop skirt?)—there was much fodder for an erotic story, but then my eyes are always open to new material.
After a stop at a funky cafe for some iced tea, it was time to head over to the inn. I’m a sucker for historic dining experiences, although I know the food at such places is seldom tops in quality. It’s usually decent, however, and of course, a meal is more than just food. Add in some pewter, heavy silverware, candlelight, waitresses in long dresses, caps and frilly aprons, some hovering ghosts from the past (and of course charming contemporary company) and you’ve got a dining experience to transport you to another time.
There’s a lot of history (and plenty of ghosts) at the Farnsworth House. The oldest part of the house was built in 1810, and the brick structure where we dined was added in 1833. Original walls, floors and rafters remain intact—they don’t build ‘em like they used to, that’s for sure! A family named Sweney lived in the house during the battle, but some Confederate sharpshooters also took temporary residence in the summer of 1863. It’s believed one of them shot the bullet that killed teenager Jennie Wade, the only civilian to die in the battle. The south side of the house, facing the battlefield, is riddled with over 100 bullet holes from those bloody July days. The current owners began to restore it to its 1863 appearance in the early 1970s. They named it after Union Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth who led an ill-fated charge against the right flank of Longstreet’s forces after Pickett’s Charge failed. I don’t think of the battle lasting beyond that debacle, because it doesn’t in the telling, but the Farnsworth Inn commemorates later seldom-heard casualties of the battle.
After dinner, the plan was to corral the party to attend a presentation of ghost stories in the inn’s basement “Mourning Theatre.” I definitely have an appetite for ghost stories and ghost tours, although, like a hot fudge and brownie ice cream sundae, I prefer them as occasional indulgences. When we’d visited with our older son in 1996 (the time we took the first picture), Herr Doktor and I went on one of the two lantern ghost tours offered at that time. Now you can find a ghost tour advertised on (almost) literally every block. It would be hard to choose, except with some local’s recommendation—or perhaps they’re all similar? While I’m comparing ghost tours to food--I seem to compare everything to food, don’t I?--I’d like to add that I like mine with a mildly creepy flavor rather than the grisly end of the spice rack. Actually, what I really enjoy about ghost stories is how they make me think about the way the human mind works. Urban legends are the same in this regard. Ghost stories have such a broad appeal because they tap into our deepest anxieties and even hopes, so that picking apart such a story is a way of digging deeper into the human psyche. Besides which, ghosts stories are usually good, suspenseful yarns in themselves and I’m always looking to steal good tricks!
I have a pretty bad memory for jokes and stories, but a few of the terrible tales we heard on that earlier ghost tour have stayed with me for over ten years. At the risk of going on and on, I’d like to share them here and see what you think.
The first ghostly visitation occurred in one of the historic houses along the main street in the town. The innocent resident bought some figures of famous officers who served at the battle and set them up on her mantel as decoration. The next morning she came down to find them rearranged. No problem if she had children who’d played with them, but—she lived alone! Confused, she rearranged the figures in her preferred order and went about her business. The next morning--to her surprise and growing horror--they were changed around yet again in exactly the same way. After doing a bit of research, the hapless Gettysburg homeowner discovered that her chosen way to display the figures was historically inaccurate and some unseen hand was fixing them to reflect the way things really happened during the battle. I believe the denouement was that she decided to leave things as they were and the ghost kept his peace.
Creepy, huh? I can just see that earnest, slightly annoyed ghost strategist putting things right just round about midnight.
The next story is a bit more grisly. Some years ago two men got into an elevator in a Gettysburg office building and pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator began to move, but not up. Instead it was going down. Again not a big deal except—there was no basement in this building! Exchanging worried glances, the men waited in silence as the elevator slowly descended and the door slid open. Their jaws dropped. Because suddenly they were gazing out at a horrible scene: wounded men groaning, severed limbs piled high beside the bloody surgical table, and a horrible stink of rotting flesh filling the air. The man with more wherewithal stabbed the “lobby” button and the door closed on the frightful tableau. When it opened again, they were back in the present day. Later they learned that the building was constructed on the same site that was used as a battle hospital by the Confederates.
Enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
To tell the truth, this grim tale occasionally pops into my head when I’m riding an elevator. I’m not sure I have the perverse appeal all worked out in my own mind, but there is definitely something creepy about elevators (anxiety about technology is a common theme in urban legends and supernatural tales). You get into this little box, wait, the door opens and you walk out into a different place as if by magic.
But what if you walked out into a different time as well?
It’s surely a question for us all to ponder, but all of these ghost stories are making me hungry. So let’s get back to dinner. After a waiting a bit in the bustling entryway of the Farnsworth House, our party of seven was escorted to our long table in what was probably the original dining room of the house. The cups were pewter, nicely cool and heavy in the hand. Real candles flickered all around. Perusing the nineteenth-century menu was a great deal of the fun—in keeping with the time meat dishes were prevalent. Emerald and Rick stayed true to the times by ordering the house specialty, game pie, and steak, respectively, both of which were reportedly tasty. I had scallops—simply braised in butter and quite nice--and Herr Doktor tried for the chicken pot pie, but it was sold out and he got so-so crab-meat stuffed salmon instead. As is usual in such places (this is true of Williamsburg taverns as well), the side dishes are the most intriguing parts of the menu. I’d give highest marks to the custardy cornmeal spoon bread that was served in little cups, although the Sally Lunn bread was disappointingly dry. The green beans boiled in ham broth were as nostalgically limp and salty as my grandmother used to make, but the pumpkin fritters were delectably spiced with cinnamon and wouldn’t have been out of place with a side of ice cream. I left most of the beans and polished off my son’s fritters quite happily (cause he thought they were weird--I'm not that bad of a mother!).
But of course, conversation was the best condiment. Rick is a history buff and had lots of interesting stories to tell about the Civil War period, a topic very much on my mind. We also got to talking about food preferences, and Emerald and Rick shared their very intriguing idea for a restaurant catering to couples. Their menu would have three sections. On the left would be a list of dishes aimed at the traditional female preferences—salads, seafood, light meals. On the right would be the traditional meaty, manly fare. However, the middle panel would have the house specialties, which blended the two in a new marriage of flavors.
I thought this sounded really cool.
Having experienced this man food/woman food split on dates (although Herr Doktor and I have pretty similar likes and dislikes after 24 years together), I thought such a melding of gendered cuisines would certainly provoke interesting date-night discussion, and possibly encourage a satisfying meeting of the appetites in preparation for another sort of intimate encounter later. Food as foreplay indeed!
Although tempted by the shoofly pie on the dessert menu, I was full enough to pass this time, figuring there’d be plenty of opportunity to indulge in Amish Country (and boy was there ever…). The kids ordered ice cream, which arrived scooped high in pewter bowls, and the adults chatted on into the evening, thereby missing the ghost story presentation at the inn altogether. This was probably good since I was really the only one who was genuinely enthusiastic. My kids thought they might get scared and I suspect Emerald was just being polite when she agreed to come along. So, everyone was happy and unhaunted when we walked out into the night, dodging knots of tourists strolling by with their lantern-toting ghost tour guides.
We said a not-so-sad goodbye to Emerald, for we’d be seeing her again the next evening for the Erotica Writer’s Bacchanalia, which was sure to be the scandal of Hanover for decades to come (and hopefully inspire annual reenactments).
Stay tuned next time to discover what happens when a bunch of dirty story writers get together for a big bash!