Living in a tourist town creates unique challenges. Visitors wreak havoc with the local traffic patterns for example, causing unnecessary snarls and the occasional fender bender. Favorite restaurants get mobbed, interfering not only with our social lives but our hunger pangs. And then there are those who have no clue what all the fuss is about and wish they were anywhere but where they are, in the tiny hamlet known as Gettysburg.
The 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg stretched the patience and fortitude of most residents. The smart ones left town. Besides the normal heat and humidity, an inordinate number of tourists visited, originating from every part of the globe. Folks hailing from Germany, Australia, Norway and South Korea expounded on the nuances of Gettysburg’s battle and the Civil War in general. These conversations were scintillating and I enjoyed every last one of them, even with those who failed to buy anything.
Some tourists from the nether regions of the U.S., however, burned themselves upon my brain, leaving irreparable scarring. Beginning with a group of ladies from New Jersey on a “girls’ weekend away.” They came to Gettysburg to soak up the history, so they said, and to “shop ’til they dropped.” Believing these three had some interest in the local history (why else make Gettysburg their destination?), I asked them what they thought of the sites so far, especially the battlefield.
“It’s so big,” one of them moaned. “And hot,” whined another.
OK, I get it. Battlefields tend to lack shade, which can be particularly annoying in the middle of July.
“But did you enjoy your tour?” I pursued, needing to hear affirmation from at least one of them. After a pregnant pause, the tall, willowy blonde asked me, “Why was that place named Pickett’s Charge? Was it because of the white picket fence around the barn?”
Is this a blonde joke?
Three pairs of expectant eyes turned to me. Someone in a far corner chortled. How could I answer this with a straight face? Because it was still early in the day, I mustered the energy to maintain a modicum of control over my facial features.
“A Confederate General with the last name of Pickett led the charge across that field,” I replied.
“Why did he do that?” was the response.
Out and out laughter burst forth from the back room, sparing me the necessity of a response. The women turned toward the snorting men and I made my escape to assist another customer.
Where’s the Advil?
Several days and several hundred customers later, a father and son duo came in, claiming California as their home. Puffed up like a peacock, the father bragged his son had been accepted to UC Berkeley as a history major. We made small talk as they browsed around for several minutes. Business at the front desk was brisk.
As they made their way toward the door, the son turned to me and asked, “So, uh, what was this Civil War thing all about?”
My jaw dropped.
Silence blanketed our customer-filled store.
People turned and stared. The father looked like he wanted to dig a hole six feet under while the son waited for my answer, oblivious to his faux pas.
“The Civil War broke out in 1861 because several states seceded from the Union. These states wanted to form a separate government,” I replied. This synopsis was the best I could do with zero prep time.
The father jumped in. “You have to understand, they don’t teach U.S. history in California schools,” he explained.
“Really,” I said, “then just what do they teach?”
“California history,” was his quick reply.
“You do realize that there was a United States before the state of California ever existed, right?” I blurted out, diplomacy and patience going out the window.
Sad to say, I am not 100 percent convinced either father or son knew the answer to this question, but I do know that U.S. history is indeed taught in California schools. My uncle is a retired superintendent of a California school district. Maybe this particular young man was out sick that week.
I need some Rolaids.
A few short days later, a middle-aged gentleman burst into the foyer. His flushed face and agitation made me think he needed medical help.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“No!” he virtually shouted to a store full of concerned citizens.
“I can’t find General Grant’s monument and no one in this damn town seems to know where it is!” he shouted.
Here we go. As quietly as possible, so as not to embarrass him, I stated, “Sir, General Grant wasn’t here at Gettysburg. General Meade was commander of the Union forces.”
A blank stare ensued, followed by a mouth opening then clenching shut. He turned on his heel and stomped out, slamming the door behind him.
Suddenly in need of cooler air, I turned down the thermostat.
Summer dragged on and the freshman class of Gettysburg College arrived in late August. These students dripped with anticipation about their new lives sans parental supervision. A band of six trudged in, more for the air conditioning than any interest in artifacts. The girls perused the jewelry while the boys made a beeline for the antique weapons.
One of the young men asked, “So, why did Lee surrender at Appomattox when the war ended in Gettysburg?”
Here we go. Time for a pop quiz; these kids are attending Gettysburg College, after all.
“What year was the battle of Gettysburg?” I asked them.
Silence, nothing, nada.
“Take a guess,” I encouraged.
“1865?” one of the girls whispered while ducking behind the tallest male.
“Try again,” I said.
At this point, the clueless six got defensive. They huddled up, reminding me of wildebeest after sniffing out a lion on the plains of the Serengeti.
“We didn’t come in here for a test,” the pretty one huffed. Obviously the alpha female of the group, she flounced out leaving her entourage to dutifully follow.
Where is that Advil?
In September, a local hotel hosted the annual reunion of all Medal of Honor recipients. This gala affair always garners important guests. Rumor had it that George Bush II would be the keynote speaker. He wasn’t, but Tom Selleck did himself and all Americans proud.
Needless to say, the hotel staff was put on notice to stay sharp while these VIPs were in town. Managers, supervisors and other bigwigs buzzed around in the days leading up to this prestigious event.
At the weekly staff meeting, when it was first announced that the hotel had been chosen for this special occasion, the front desk personnel failed to understand the nature of all the fuss.
“What’s a Medal of Honor?” asked one.
“Who are they?” another wanted to know.
After the hotel manager provided an explanation, the front desk youngsters shrugged, as if to imply, “No big deal.”
When this scenario was relayed to me, I needed a tissue to mop up the waterworks.
What is a medal of honor? Are you kidding me?
Yep, it’s been a fun-filled, character-building season here in Gettysburg.
If anyone from Scotland, South Africa or perhaps New Zealand is still roaming around town, please stop by our shop. I’d really like to chat with you.
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Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa., 717- 334-1122, firstname.lastname@example.org or arsenalofthealleghenys.com.