Thursday, September 03, 2009
Gettysburg, Day 3: A Dark, Mysterious Corridor Through Time
Okay, so I lied. I just realized I’m not going to get to the Erotica Writers Bacchanalia in this post. The event looms large in my memory of my East Coast Magical History Tour, but I’d forgotten about some of the other trips into the past that preceded this celebration of my present, and since I took so many pictures, well, half the fun in life is getting there, right? And while frolicking with a happy group of writers who know no shame is my eventual dream destination in my travelblogue, the rest of my Sunday was a necessary purifying preparation for the piece de resistance.
And yes, it involved another trip or two into the past (said with sonorous, creepy voice).
Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg brought the brief “high water mark” of the Confederacy as General Armistead’s brigade momentarily broke through the Union lines, only to be quickly overwhelmed. Thus it is fitting that Sunday, August 9 was a whirlwind of highlights of my trip—the actual family reunion that brought me east and the erotica writers’ dinner. But first we had a whole morning to fill with adventure, and I’m serious about my adventures, so I assembled the troops early ,and we headed back to our “regular” joint, The Avenue. Unfortunately for my younger son, who requested a repeat revisit for his bowl of Special K, Sundays are very busy days at The Avenue. We’d walked right in before, but now a line stretched out onto the sidewalk, so we convinced him to blow off the lengthy wait and walk back towards the square to try out a French-style eatery that had caught my eye on our wanderings: Café St-Amand. The comparative lack of patronage in the place put me on guard, although the air-conditioning immediately raised my spirits. But in spite of its quiet atmosphere, the food was actually excellent. I had a mushroom-tomato-cheese omelet, which was much silkier, not to say more French, than The Avenue’s tougher country version, along with a café au lait slushie—just right for a hot summer morning. Herr Doktor tried one of the crepes, which got good reviews, and the boys chose French toast, possibly the best or second best in Gettysburg (wink). Although apparently, the locals weren’t aware of this!
After breakfast, I marched my men back down Steinwehr Avenue, where the line at the Avenue still snaked out the door, and on down to the American Civil War Museum for my own personal reunion with an important part of my childhood. Known back then as the “Civil War Wax Museum,” this trip back in time was always one of the highlights of a visit to the area. I’d guess my parents didn’t let me come every time, but certainly twice a year or as often as my begging could convince them. And, for those of you at all interested in the makings of an erotica writer’s mind, this museum probably did more to shape and feed my fantasies than any other place. When we’d last visited in 1996, I was happy to find a cousin (once-removed) working at the ticket booth—always fun, and as I said, I have about a million relatives in these parts.
However, this time I discovered the museum was much transformed in the intervening 13 years. First of all, they’d changed the name. Secondly, a group of living history reenactors was camped outside the entrance, making the once grand white columns seem more of a backdrop than the main event. Once inside, what I remembered as a mysteriously dark entrance with a wax figure displayed as a teaser and the ticket taker waiting at a special raised desk in the shadows, had now become a brightly lit gift shop. In fact, you had to make an effort to find the entrance to the museum off to the left through a turnstile. And the person at the cash register seemed surprised we wanted to buy tickets rather than just shop.
Yes, things had changed a lot in forty years. Wax museums had clearly lost their cache and I started feeling relieved this timeless landmark was still open for business at all. Had they perhaps changed around the museum itself with an eye to modern tastes as well? I was anxious to buy my ticket and find out.
It bears repeating that the entrance to the museum now looked more like a random doorway back to the restrooms. Very plain and unassuming. Still, determined to revisit the past, my past, we valiantly bought our tickets and pushed through the turnstile and the black curtains at the entrance.
All was dark. Holding my breath, I took a blind few steps and turned the corner. And, yes, suddenly I was back in time--in the Old South. It was just as I’d left it ten, twenty, thirty, forty years before, frozen. Wax slaves picked cotton, the master and his lady watching indolently, a civilization doomed to destruction. The next window gave me a glimpse of the antebellum North—industrious workers in a home sweatshop, all white. Next came the scene that as a child always shocked and impressed me with the violence of the time in some ineffable way: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacking Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane for his provocative speech against slavery and its supporters. (Sumner was injured so badly, it took three years to recover his health enough to return to the Senate; South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of new canes, as he’d broken his from the final blow to his victim’s body).
This window boasted one of the museum’s eeriest effects—lying on the floor under Brooks’ upraised cane, Sumner’s chest rises and falls as if he’s breathing under great stress (see photo above). It’s hypnotic—my younger son stared in fascination—perhaps because the wax figures do seem so dead, yet this one lives, although poised on the brink of a brutal, bloody beating. Just like America itself.
My family soon wandered on far ahead, but I lingered—first at the mesmerizing tableau for the Underground Railroad where you press a button to illuminate the runaways hiding in the basement of a “station master’s” cabin. Then there was Rose Greenhow, the famous Confederate lady spy, who’d always intrigued me with her wily feminine intrepidness. What was she whispering to the man at the door? And how could she do all that in a hoop skirt? And why were there no Union lady spies? (There were, they just didn't make it into the museum with Rose and Belle Boyd, the southern femmes fatales).
I felt these questions forty years ago, but now the same thoughts came to me more vividly, in words.
Of course, there was a window dedicated to Jennie Wade, and at this point, the fog of nostalgia cleared just enough for me to notice this figure was pretty darn ugly, not at all like the photograph of Gettyburg’s only civilian casualty. The real Jennie is quite pretty, but her doppelganger is balding and homely to a distressing degree. I supposed I’d been aware of this from the start, but now I viscerally understood why the wax museum had fallen into disfavor in our age of dazzling special effects. There was something undeniably crude and unglamorous about it. Yet this was the glamour and magic of my childhood, the means to transport me back into history. In a way I associate all trips to the past with this place—wandering through dark, mysterious corridors with moments of startling illumination. Darkness and light, me as voyeur. In fact, it’s been a long-standing fantasy of mine to have my own dark ride or wax museum secreted away in my house, the entrance to another world hidden behind a modest doorway. Kind of like Aladdin’s secret garden with the trees bearing rubies and emeralds instead of fruit.
I wandered on down the path, each scene triggering new memories. The crudeness of the male figures seemed somehow less sad, I decided. I snapped many pictures (choosing just a few for your viewing pleasure). For some reason I was drawn to take a close up of this man: Confederate General John Bell Hood. Indeed in the photos, he comes out relatively well, and I find myself studying him as if he were a real person. In putting together this blog, I checked out Hood’s Wikipedia page and discovered this observation from the ever-perceptive contemporary diarist Mary Chestnut:
“When Hood came with his sad Quixote face, the face of an old Crusader, who believed in his cause, his cross, and his crown, we were not prepared for such a man as a beau-ideal of the wild Texans. He is tall, thin, and shy; has blue eyes and light hair; a tawny beard, and a vast amount of it, covering the lower part of his face, the whole appearance that of awkward strength. Some one said that his great reserve of manner he carried only into the society of ladies. Major [Charles S.] Venable added that he had often heard of the light of battle shining in a man's eyes. He had seen it once — when he carried to Hood orders from Lee, and found in the hottest of the fight that the man was transfigured. The fierce light of Hood's eyes I can never forget.”
What struck me about this passage is that this same mysterious quality of veiled passion is captured in the wax face—perhaps the reason I was drawn to it? Here and throughout this vacation, it seemed to me I was seeing everything with new eyes, clearer eyes, that led me to unearth fascinating, if seemingly obscure discoveries, that made a tacky old museum into a bewitching adventure. The main difference of course, was that I had not yet started writing seriously in 1997. Now I was seeing this museum, and everything, as a writer.
I liked my new vision.
I was also more aware of the aspects of the Civil War the curators chose to bring to “life,” those they chose to skip over, thus shaping a huge, unruly story. But of course, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had to be included, always a chilling scene, the moment just before. I also noticed that the paper on which the scene descriptions were written was now wrinkled—probably untouched in forty-some years (although the wax figures were scrupulously dusted at least).
The last part of the museum was still the same, too—the grand diorama. Back in the day, you used to have to wait, possibly through one whole performance, because it was so crowded. But this time the theatre was almost deserted with only my family of four and another man and his son in attendance. We had our choice of seating on the benches arranged in a semicircle around a sunken stage of wax figures. I realized that at one time this must have been state-of-the-art entertainment, but now, well—even so, it held up pretty well in my opinion. (I’m biased, though, as you might guess).
This grand finale is a kind of sound and light show describing highlights of the Battle of Gettysburg. The parts that stayed in my memory remain—feisty union General Daniel Sickles getting his leg amputated (the bloody saw was a haunting image), the mayhem of Pickett’s Charge that seemed to bring with it the smell of gunpowder. And then above it all Abraham Lincoln himself rising above the fray on an elevated platform to deliver the Gettysburg Address. The figure of Lincoln clearly got the most love from the engineers. His head moves, he gestures, holding a rolled up copy of his speech (which reminded me somehow of a half-eaten churro or a hot dog bun). But the words of the Address never fail to move, even after hearing/reading them a few times over the past two days. This part always gets me:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”
Because of course, Lincoln is very, very wrong about that. If you're looking for an example of deathless prose, this tops the list.
Anyhow, when we stumbled back out into the fluorescent-bright twenty-first century, I was immediately hankering to buy one of the accordion postcard collections of highlights of the museum as a momento. I’d kept one in my treasure box as a child, but it must have been discarded long ago. Yet, a thorough search yielded no such postcards of the wax figures, and when I asked at the desk, they told me they had none for sale. Only T-shirts and passport books for smashed pennies and Confederate-flag print bathing suits. It’s as if the gift shop were trying to forget the secret drama unfolding eternally in the depths.
Like the battle itself, part of my Gettysburg has passed forever into history. But at least for a while, the heart of it lingers behind an unassuming door, waiting for the right traveler to seek its magic.
Next time: Hey, I really will blog about the Erotica Writers' Dinner. Honest!