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