Monday, September 29, 2008

Bless the Good Ship National Park Service and All Who Sail in Her!

I don't know about you, but for your correspondent, the sun shines just a little brighter, the birds sing just a little more sweetly, the clouds take on just a bit a more benign fluffiness, on those Mondays that follow that Any Given Sunday when the Washington Reagans kick the snot out of the sorry, stink-assed, dogfaced titty-babies who call themselves the Dallas Cowboys. In Dallas! In Dallas!

That's some sweet Monday Morning Goodness.

That isn't what I want to talk about, though.

A shortish period of enforced leisure came to an end Friday when a job, its start-date cruelly put off for a week, reared its head. I fought the heebie-jeebies of both boredom and terror (have you read a newspaper or a blog lately?) by going into Full-On Raging Tourist Mode.

Well, think about it. The kiddiewinks are in school, so they can't follow Daddikins around the museum or park declaring their boredom and demanding ice cream. Wonder Woman was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, the result of a bored and anxious hubby out on the screen porch with his face glued to a laptop screen reading the 250th comment in a week-old thread at Sadly, No! Something had to give, and I decided to visit my anxieties and ennui on our National Park System.

I'm very glad I did.

Monday, the first day my soon-to-be employers told me to cool my heels, saw me at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with my camera and binoculars dangling foolishly from my neck. (I regret to say that I'd forgotten to actually charge the camera's battery, giving me a useless, clunking appendage to carry around all day, but ah, well. I'll just pretend I took all these; who's gonna know the difference?) It is possible to drive into the center of the town, if you know the Backdoor Bolivar Heights trick, but as I say, I was in Full-Tourist mode, so I parked at the lot at the edge of town to take the Park Service Bus in with the retirees and the schoolkids on a field trip.

While waiting for the next bus, I stopped in at the little Visitors Center, which was manned by a Park Ranger. I picked up a copy of Joseph Barry's The Strange Story of Harper's Ferry, a 1904 history more notable for its eccentricity than its accuracy -- it contains a short version of John Mobberly's life that (rather amusingly) gets very nearly every fact wrong. I mentioned this to the Ranger, and he perked up considerable; he knew everything -- everything! -- about Mobberly, who after all was born only a few miles away and whose lifeless body was strung up in Harpers Ferry, the townspeople dipping their handkerchiefs in his blood to keep as a souvenir.

It's unsurprising for a Harpers Ferry Park Ranger to be interested in this tiny, obscure Civil War guerrilla but what was remarkable was the intensity of his interest. We talked through two bus cycles, all other calls on our attention the merest trifles. He did attend to a few other customers, folks wanting directions or maps, but -- and this is the point I wanted to make -- he was willing to talk to me as long as I was prepared to listen.

Down in the town, I arrived just in time for the Ranger-Guided Tour, and I joined the small crowd around a trim gentleman with a white nineteenth-century vandyke beard and smart straw hat. He warmed to his topic, John Brown's 1859 Raid, a chat he'd clearly given many times before, and in which he expertly elucidated the circumstances in which the United States found itself on the cusp of tearing itself apart. The tour began outdoors, then made its way into the Provost Marshall's office, where maps and a large mural, showing Harpers Ferry at the time of the Raid, helped him paint his word-picture. We were invited to compare the town in which we stood to the mural: The munitions factory that attracted Brown here is gone, as are many of the commercial buildings that depended on the factory. The town has flooded many times, and all that's left of the mills that lined the riverbank is river-smoothed stone foundations. The tour ended at the firehouse itself where Brown's sons and many of his followers were killed by Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee.

The mural at the Provost Marshall's office triggered a memory of George MacDonald Fraser's classic Flashman book, Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, which put Flash Harry in with Brown's raiders. After the Ranger's tour was over I went back in to get a squint at it. Some of the buildings in Fraser's picaresque and very funny book are no longer standing, and I thought if I could place them on the mural I might understand the plot better. The Ranger, fresh from his hour-long lecture, was standing near the mural, and I caught his eye.

"Excuse me," pointing at the mural, "is this the Wager Hotel?"

"Flashman and the Angel of the Lord," he said, simply. I gaped.

"Well, that's what you're reading, isn't it? Nobody's ever asked me about the Wager Hotel who hasn't read it."

Amazing. For the second time that day, I found myself deep in engrossing conversation with an extremely knowledgeable person who cared profoundly about his topic. He recounted MacDonald Fraser's researches at Harpers Ferry (describing them as impeccable and thorough), noted historical unlikelihoods that were necessary to advance Fraser's plot, other books -- fictional and non- -- I might enjoy, recited parts of Uncle Tom's Cabin, offered his nuanced and subtle opinion of Brown's motivations and heroism, listened to my anecdote about John Stevens, expounded on the relationship between the Irish navvies who built the C&O Canal and the African slaves who lived here (Why didn't slave labor build the canal? The slaves were more expensive than the Irishmen! No joke), and answered a question about the now-destroyed bridge over the Potomac.

Again, the point must be made: I was the person who had to (regretfully) end that conversation. At no point did he ever betray irritation at my boatload of questions -- quite the opposite -- nor did he ignore anyone else who came into the office with a request for a map or other information.

Both of the Park Rangers who spent an hour each out of their days to entertain, to explain, to elucidate history for a curious civilian, were uniformed U. S. Government employees. Dedicated, decidedly underpaid, extremely knowledgeable civil servants. Believe it or not, there was once a time when the U. S. Government was a place where you looked for employment if you wanted to help people, to advance the cause of human ennoblement. I can't help but think that that spirit might have motivated the two men who made my day so enjoyable. About in my mid-teens, I started hearing exactly the opposite -- the first stirrings of the Reagan Revolution. It grew and grew until it became conventional wisdom: Government doesn't solve problems; government is the problem.

Wonder where my Park Ranger friends' retirement funds went today.


Anonymous said...

No comment...

Anonymous said...


You had me until you referred to "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord" as a "classic." While any scholar or enthusiast will tell you that the Flashman papers would be incomplete without that packet, all would agree that it is at best a minor sampling of the complete archive.

Every respected researcher knows that the American episodes in Harry's memoirs are at best a novelty, and certainly nowhere near what the thinking man would call "classic" Flashman.

XTCfan said...

Government doesn't solve problems; government is the problem.

Especially if government doesn't regulate the problems, in which case it has to then step in and solve the problems.

Oh. Wait.

I think I just broke something.

EmployeeoftheMonth said...

From a favorite, a birds eye of HF

Ned, large amount of kick-ass VA photos there.

Neddie said...

That Shorpy pic is fascinating. A fully-functioning C&O Canal lies cheek-by jowl with the B&O Railroad on the Maryland side of the Potomac -- a pair of direct competitors, one destined to usher in modern transportation and unify the country, the other an antiquated eighteenth-century idea brought over from Britain.

Today the C&O is a 150-mile-long park, dry in most spots. The Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, and MARC and Amtrak, run trains past Harpers Ferry about once an hour.

When the wind is right, I can hear those trains in my bedroom.

Neddie said...

The last mountain visible on the Virginia side is Short Hill -- what I think of as "my" mountain. My house is on the eastern foot of it. (We're looking at the west side in the Shorpy pic.) In the middle background, between HF and Short Hill, is where I've done most of my local hiking -- XTCfan will recognize it.

JD said...

"Every respected researcher knows that the American episodes in Harry's memoirs are at best a novelty, and certainly nowhere near what the thinking man would call "classic" Flashman."
Oh, don't be silly. Flashman and the Angel of the Lord is one of the best of the lot, and I've read 'em all. Macdonald Fraser was an ornery old goat who researched beautifully and knew how to tell a story, God rest his soul.

Neddie said...

In view of the incontrovertible fact that Flashman and the Redskins is the best of the lot, I thought Anonymous was not being entirely serious. Flash for Freedom! is a corking good read, too.

Oddly, I've just been going over the Flashman entry at Wikipedia, and found a glaring omission: While it points to the 1964 novel Little Big Man and Mark Twain's short story "Luck," nowhere does it mention Arthur Conan Doyle's Brigadier Gerard stories, which are (IMHO) the seminal influence on Fraser. Must do something about that.

JD said...

I'd like to put in a word for Flashman and the Great Game and Flashman and the Mountain of Light as well. If you can correct for his nostalgia for the Empire, you can learn an immense amount about the British in India and have some hearty laughs as well.

J. Andrew Boyle said...

Man, I miss Harpers. Somewhere, there is a shot of me as a young lad with some relatives there. Me in my favorite Spiderman shirt. Circa 1975.

Just started a new bird banding project. The park is owned by the city of Altamonte Springs and the rangers there are top notch. They, also, will stop their day and go on for ever about nature as long as you are willing to hear it.

Nice for a change.

The old place we banded, a state park, has a rotating roster of rangers who could hardly care about what the public thinks. In my 4 years banding there I had a ranger stop by once for a total of 10 minutes.


racketmensch said...

My wife and I have been working our way up the C&O by bicycle in 5-10 mile sections. Above Great falls is a very steep and narrow section that would have to have been blasted out with hand-drills and gunpowder and (I assume) dug out with hand shovels and wheelbarrows. I was amazed that this would even have been possible and remarked that it could only have been done by slaves.
A bit later, we stopped to ask a hiker what, if anything of interest was ahead, and I mentioned my slave theory. Turns out the guy (a civilian) is very knowledgeable and participates in some sort of canal re-enactment groups. He confirmed what you said about the canal being built by immigrants and that the Irish and Germans had fights over which groups would have the pleasure to work like animals all day for next-to-nothing.
Can you imagine how shitty it must have been in the Old Country? We are so lucky to be here, now.
"Horses? Are you crazy? They're $40 each! Send down a couple of...Germans!" Blazing Saddles - PC version.