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07 Jul

Flight 93 National Memorial: Where America Remembers

On September 11, 2001, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda hijacked
four planes.  Two struck the towers of the World Trade Center in New
York, one at 8:46 a.m. (American Airlines Flight 11) and the second at
9:03 a.m. (United Airlines Flight 175).  At 9:37 a.m., a third plane,
American Airlines Flight 77, crashes into the Pentagon.  Thirty minutes
later, United Airlines Flight 93 crashes into a field in Somerset
County, Pennsylvania, after passengers unsuccessfully attempted to take
control of the plane from the hijackers.  It is supposed that Flight
93’s ultimately destination was the U.S. Capitol building in Washington,

Flight 93 National Memorial, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania,
commemorates the heroic efforts of passengers and crew members to stop
the hijacking.  Administered by the National Park Service, it is the
only federal property that "remembers" what happened that fateful day.


Park entrance

have visited over two dozen national parks (most of them historic
properties), and I worked at one as a seasonal ranger for three
summers.  By far, this was the most moving experience I have ever had at
a national park.  It’s one thing to go to the Assembly Room at
Independence Hall and see where our nation was founded.  It’s something
entirely different to visit a place where our nation’s freedom was
defended by ordinary people who didn’t want hijackers to attack our

Flight 93 is distinctive among the four hijacked flights
that day because it’s the only one that did not reach its intended
target.  The flight’s departure from Newark was delayed because of
normal early morning traffic at the airport, which means that its
passengers knew about the attacks on the World Trade Center when
terrorists took control of the plane at 9:28 a.m.  The passengers
formulated a plan to retake control of the cockpit from the hijackers;
ultimately, the hijackers chose to crash the plane rather than let the
crew and passengers regain control of the aircraft.

Boulder marks the crash site for Flight 93.

aircraft exploded upon impact, releasing over 7,000 gallons of fuel in a
fireball that rose higher than the hemlock trees surrounding the area. 
Debris scattered over the field.  Today, the walkway from the Memorial
Plaza to the Memorial Wall is lined with black concrete, black because
of the coal in the region.  The black wall also separates the debris
field from the walkway; in other words, it provides a barrier between
tourists and where the human remains rest.

Sloping edge of the black wall marks the northern edge of the crash site and debris field.

Sloping edge of the black concrete wall marks the northern edge of the crash site and debris field.

visitors occasionally leave tributes in the small niches in the wall
and at the Wall of Names.  Visitors also have an opportunity to leave
expressions of gratitude at the Memorial Plaza.

Tribute left at niche in wall

Tributes left at niche in wall

Wall of Names follows the flight path of Flight 93 toward the crash
site.  It identifies crew members with their position (flight
attendants, etc.), along with naming the passengers who were not
involved in hijacking the plane (there were 44 people on board that
flight, but only 40 names are included on the Wall of Names).  One thing
that struck me when I visited the Wall of Names was how somber it was. 
Typically, at a national park, you hear people talking and
laughing–not at Flight 93 National Memorial.  Park visitors truly
respect what happened at this site, and they treat it with proper

Section of Wall of Names

Section of Wall of Names

At the site, several wayside signs provide information on the flight and what happened that fateful day.

One of the wayside signs, with photos of the crew and passengers of Flight 93.

One of the wayside signs, with photos of the crew and passengers of Flight 93.

thing is obvious when visiting the site–it is designed to honor those
heroes who prevented the hijackers from achieving their goal.  It does
not memorialize the hijackers by name on the Wall of Honor, not does it
include their photos on the sign identifying the crew and passengers of
the flight.  Some might consider that to be sanitizing the history of
the events, but since the park is a memorial to those who prevented the
attack on the U.S. Capitol (especially since Congress was in session
that morning), then I support their interpretive focus.

Flight 93
National Memorial is in the process of building a Visitor Center that
will include a Learning Center, and it is scheduled to be completed in
late 2015.  If you travel there before its completion, you can view the
progress of construction from the Memorial Plaza.  In any case, it is
definitely worth the trip to visit this national park–and you are
encouraged to leave a note expressing your gratitude for those who gave
their lives that day or just write your thoughts about the site.

Park visitors are encouraged to leave a message in the Visitor Shelter.  The large note in the top right was written by someone who was working in the White House on 9/11/2001.

visitors are encouraged to leave a message in the Visitor Shelter. The
large note in the top right was written by someone who was working in
the White House on 9/11/2001.
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21 Nov

Finding My Heritage at Historic Sites

The past few years, I have had the privilege of being able to visit a
variety of historic sites.  I also have been researching my family
history, using the resources available through Ancestry.com (which I
also use for other historical research).  Sometimes, the two interests
collide.  This blog will look at two particular historic sites where my
ancestors actively participated in American history–two historic sites
that in many ways shaped the outcome of the War for Independence.

The first, Washington Crossing Historical Park in Bucks County,
Pennsylvania, is the site where General George Washington planned the
invasion of Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas evening in 1776.  The
Continental Congress had already moved west from Philadelphia in
anticipation of a potential British attack on the capital city. 
Washington’s army had fled New York and marched across New Jersey
following the defeat at the Battle of Long Island and set up winter camp
on the western side of the Delaware River in Bucks County,
Pennsylvania.  Enlistments were due to expire at the end of the year,
and Washington new that he needed a quick jolt to boost morale in the
Continental Army and encourage soldiers to reenlist for another year
(or, hopefully, for the duration of the conflict).

View of the Delaware River from Washington Crossing Historic Park, facing New Jersey.

Using Durham boats piloted by members of
Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead regiment from Massachusetts,
Washington’s troops were ferried across the icy Delaware to the New
Jersey shore, and then they marched several hours before attacking
Trenton after dawn.  Catching the Hessian troops by surprise,
Washington’s troops won the Battle of Trenton, continued to harass the
British troops in the region, and restored troop morale sufficiently
that kept the army fighting.

of Durham boats used in crossing. Troops sat on boat; horses and cannon
were transported on flat boats. Durham boats were primarily used to
ship iron from the Durham Iron Works to Philadelphia.

Each year, Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware is reenacted. 
Unlike when my ancestor Jacob Griesemer participated, today an icy river
prevents an accurate recreation of the crossing, and instead the troops
walk across the bridge to New Jersey.

connecting Washington’s Crossing to New Jersey. This bridge is
occasionally used during reenactments if the weather prevents crossing
the river in boats.

By the way, I can now say that I have walked from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

The second historic site of the Revolution where one of my ancestors
fought was at Saratoga National Historical Park.  This time, however,
instead of serving with Washington (who was busy with the Battles of
Brandywine and Germantown at the time), my ancestor was on the other
side.  Kaspar Spahn (aka Casper Spohn) was a wagoner in the Princely
Hesse Hanau Artillery Regiment, and as such he worked with the caissons
in the Battles of Saratoga.  His regiment was stationed at the Breymann
Redoubt, unsuccessfully defending against the American assault and
ultimately surrendering to the Continental Army.  This location is also
significant because troops from Spohn’s regiment shot General Benedict
Arnold in the leg, and it was during his recuperation and military
governorship in Philadelphia in which he became acquainted with Major
John Andre through his wife Peggy Shippen, daughter of a Loyalist judge.

Boot Monument at Saratoga

side of boot monument. The monument honors the hero of Saratoga, whose
name is not mentioned on the monument. For some reason, they didn’t want
to mention Benedict Arnold.

The neatest part about visiting Saratoga, however, was finding out
from the Park Historian that the cannon and caisson in the Visitor
Center was from Spohn’s regiment and that in all likelihood he worked on
that cannon during the battle.

What I’d like to call Caspar’s cannon in the Visitor Center

After Burgoyne surrendered his army, Spohn was taken prisoner,
ultimately spending the remainder of the war at the Hessian Camp in
Reading, Pennsylvania, and remaining in the United States following the
war.  Several of the guards at Hessian camp were ancestors from another
family line.

To me–an historian of early American history–it has been quite
exciting to visit historic places where my ancestors walked, fought, and
camped during the American Revolution.  I might not be descended from
anyone famous (well, at least not famous because of their service during
the Revolutionary War), but it definitely was a memorable experience to
be where my ancestors had lived during this extraordinary time.

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19 Jul

Books, Boats, and Busts

Six states.  Fifteen historic sites and museums. 
Two interactive factory tours.  One visit with family.  All were part of
a wild first two weeks of July.

My brother and sister-in-law visited earlier this
month, my brother for the first week and my sister-in-law for both weeks
(the last week was part of a requested “history tour” where we visited
most of those fifteen sites and museums).  They arrived on Saturday,
June 29 and spent a few days visiting with members of my father’s family
who live in the Harrisburg area before trekking north to Mansfield. 
Their first stop on Tuesday was at the Peter J. McGovern Little League
Museum in South Williamsport, PA, which has been remodeled since I
visited it last August during the Peanuts exhibit.  That afternoon, we
traveled to Leonard Harrison State Park, home of the Pennsylvania Grand
Canyon (it’s smaller and a lot greener right now than the one in
Arizona).  On Wednesday, we went to the National Baseball Hall of Fame
and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, exploring baseball history (it,
too, has changed since my last visit in June 2000—also during a Peanuts

The reason why I wore #8 when playing softball.

The reason why I wore #8 when playing softball.

The travels from Mansfield commenced on July 4,
which was spent at Knoebels Amusement Resort, home to the best amusement
park food in the world.  That day, Knoebels celebrated the 100th
“birthday” of the Grand Carousel with free carousel rides (which they
enjoyed, and she grabbed several brass rings).  We missed the parade
(which passed on the other side of the park), they rode the roller
coasters (enjoyed Phoenix more than Twister), and visited the three
museums in the park (Carousel Museum, Miners Museum, and Knoebels
History Museum).  We also saw live bald eagles at the park.

Two bald eagles behind the fence

Two bald eagles behind the fence

On Friday, we visited the Julius Sturgis original
factory in Lititz, learning how to make pretzels the old-fashioned
way…by hand.  The plan was to go to Dorney Park, but another 95 degree
day changed those plans.

My attempt to make a pretzel by hand

My attempt to make a pretzel by hand

Saturday was the “visit family” day, as we visited
with my uncle Wayne’s family (our World War II sailor boy), including my
cousin Terry (who is Wayne’s primary caregiver), cousin Scott, and
Terry’s family.  Sunday we rode the Strasburg Railroad and explored the
Turkey Hill Experience (highly recommended for children—and you get free
ice cream and iced tea/lemonade) before heading to Baltimore, where my
brother would fly back to Houston.

Corn maze along route of Strasburg Railroad...the train to Paradise.

Corn maze along route of Strasburg Railroad…the train to Paradise.

The “history tour” began in earnest on Monday
morning with a stop at Mount Vernon on the way to Williamsburg.  I had
previously visited Mount Vernon (back in June 1975 on the way back from a
family trip to Pennsylvania), but the interpretive focus had changed
considerably since then.  The house was pretty much unchanged (here is
where Washington died, here is the piano Sally played, etc.), but the
outbuildings had a much stronger interpretive focus.  Exhibits now
acknowledge the existence of slavery on the plantation.  In the
education center, Washington comes to life through interactive exhibits
(oooh, look at the brightly colored and lighted map that shows how the
French & Indian War was the first truly global war).

Battles of the French & Indian War light up on the map

Battles of the French & Indian War light up on the map

Not only wouldn't they let metake pictures inside Mount Vernon, but I also couldn't take a photo of Washington's false teeth.  Bummer.

only wouldn’t they let me take pictures inside Mount Vernon, but I also
couldn’t take a photo of Washington’s false teeth. Bummer.

The next two days were spent at Colonial
Williamsburg, which I had visited last summer.  This time, I was able to
go on the house tours this time, as my physically limited mother either
stayed at the hotel (first day) or people-watched at the visitor center
(second day).  The inside tours were quite interesting, as the costumed
interpreters and guides provided a semi-first person account of the
family who lived there during the 18th century or allowed the
visitors to participate in activities (the first day, my sister-in-law
and I were part of the action in a civil court, and the second day we
helped “storm the palace” in response to Royal Governor Lord Dunmore
removing gunpowder from the magazine to ships along James River).

Drummer summoning the mob to get ready to storm the Governor's Palace.  First time I've been a part of an aborted rebellion.

Drummer summoning the mob to get ready to storm the Governor’s Palace. First time I’ve been a part of an aborted rebellion.

Following Colonial Williamsburg, we journeyed to
Historic Jamestowne, part of Colonial National Historical Park.  It had
changed since I visited last year; they were now doing archaeological
excavations outside the church (and the church where the House of
Burgesses first met in 1619 was closed for restoration).  This time, I
ventured to the Archaearium, which has exhibits on some of the
discoveries made, including the original foundation of the State House
and Jane, who became a meal during the starving time after her demise.

Horse uncovered during excavation outside church.  Probably a casualty during Starving Time.

Horse uncovered during excavation outside church. Probably a casualty during Starving Time.

The next stop on the history tour was Monticello,
Thomas Jefferson’s home.  Photos were not permitted on the first floor,
so I can’t show you how Jefferson fit his bed into an alcove in order to
save space (nor Jefferson’s polygraph, an 18th century Xerox
machine).  The tour guide was definitely old school, as he asserted
that Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings were mere speculation,
yet the basement/cellar area of the home included some interesting
exhibits on slave life on Jefferson’s plantation.

Jefferson was a smart man, but fortunately he miscalculated for his 7 day clock--otherwise, I would not have been able to take a picture.

was a smart man, but fortunately he miscalculated for his 7 day
clock–otherwise, I would not have been able to take a picture.

Back in Pennsylvania, we spent a rainy day at
Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic
Site.  It definitely is worth the price to take the shuttle bus to the
Eisenhower Farm, the only home owned by the 34th President of
the United States.  From the outside, it looks like a typical
farmhouse, but the interior definitely represents the life of someone
who held great influence on world events.  Without a doubt, it’s also
the only farm in Adams County that includes its own putting green.

The presidential putting green

The presidential putting green

Back at Gettysburg, the visitor center is celebrating the 150th
anniversary of the battle with a new exhibit (“Treasures of the Civil
War”) that focuses on the leaders of both Union (Army of the Potomac)
and Confederate (Army of Northern Virginia) forces.  Because of the
weather, we didn’t do the entire auto tour, but we did locate the Texas
monument at the battlefield (which is considerably smaller than the
Pennsylvania monument).

Texas Monument.  Ca. 7 feet tall.

Texas Monument. Ca. 7 feet tall.

Me at the Pennsylvania Monument (I'm 5'8").

Me at the Pennsylvania Monument (I’m 5’8″).

The final day of my sister-in-law’s history tour
took us to two places I have visited several times:  Daniel Boone
Homestead (where I worked as a “Government Service Intern” during the
summer of 1986, long before that title took on other connotations during
the Clinton administration) and Valley Forge National Historical Park. 
At Daniel Boone Homestead, we arrived early enough to get a personal
tour conducted by one of my students who is working there as an intern
this summer, and they even opened up one of the buildings for me to take

Nothing like going down a staircase sideways because the steps are narrow and winding.

Nothing like going down a staircase sideways because the steps are narrow and winding.

By the time we got to Valley Forge, it was
extremely hot, so my sister-in-law opted to watch the orientation video
(which apparently has not changed since when I saw it in 1978, based on
her description of it), then we took the auto tour of the park.  After
all, it is hard to envision Washington’s army suffering in the cold and
damp weather when it’s 98 degrees outside.

So, back to the title of this blog.  Books—bought
lots of them, including a New Testament that has parallel text in
Pennsylvania German and English at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical
Society.  Boats—one of the purchases made at the gift shop at Monticello
was a cloth version of Lewis and Clark’s boat from their expedition
(including a dog and Sacajawea).  Busts—my office will soon include a
lovely bust of Benjamin Franklin, which was purchased at Valley Forge. 
I’d move him there now, but I’m afraid he would start sweating in the
90+ degree temperatures there (the heat has already led to bobble head
of one of the Founding Fathers becoming unglued from the base).  And the
cell phone that bounced its way across Main Street in Mansfield on July
4 and was rescued by a good Samaritan (who then called my home to alert
me of its location) is still working.  The case is a bit scuffed, but I
don’t need an Otter box to protect my Windows phone.

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28 May

Remembering Memorial Day 2010

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Memorial
Day walk at Valley Forge National Historical Park in southeastern
Pennsylvania. Valley Forge is where General George Washington set up
winter camp in December 1777 while the British army under General
William Howe occupied Philadelphia (and the Continental Congress headed
west to Lancaster and York). This wasn’t my first visit to Valley Forge;
in fact, I almost worked there as a seasonal park ranger during the
summer of 1991 while in graduate school (but I had a better job offer
closer to home), and I have visited there many times. This trip,
however, would be different for a variety of reasons, most notably that I
learned something new (which at this point doesn’t happen often when I
visit historic sites related to the American Revolution) and that it led
me on an adventure that summer that included visiting a total of eight
(or nine, depending on how you count) historic sites related to the
American Revolution.

My first visit to Valley Forge was in the summer of 1978, when my
family traveled to Pennsylvania from Houston to visit relatives, and,
since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped at Valley Forge before
heading to Philadelphia. The next time was when I was a graduate student
at Penn State and accompanied the History Club on a trip to
Philadelphia, one that was led by my advisor, who had attended graduate
school at the University of Pennsylvania (and knew Philadelphia like the
back of his hand). Throughout the mid-1980s, I visited the park several
times on my days off when working at Hopewell Furnace NHS, including an
opportunity to observe the reenactment of the Continental Army’s
departure from Valley Forge in June 1988.

Each time I visit the park, I learn something new, whether it’s about
the construction of the log houses that replicate where the Continental
Army troops lived during the winter of 1777-1778 to soldier life to
details about Martha Washington’s visit to the camp that winter. The
park has changed a bit since my first visit 35 years ago, with new
exhibits in the Visitor Center and new wayside signs around the park.

Muhlenberg huts...replicas of the types of structures inhabited by the Continental soldiers

Muhlenberg huts…replicas of the types of structures inhabited by the Continental soldiers

Interior of Muhlenberg huts.

Interior of Muhlenberg huts.

Display case including medical instruments

Display case including medical instruments

Unfortunately, the bears were long gone, or they would have become dinner.

Unfortunately, the bears were long gone, or they would have become dinner.

The purpose of the Memorial Day walk, according to the ranger who led
it, was to commemorate the troops who had served in the Continental
Army during that winter. We followed the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail,
named after one of the Continental soldiers who was part of the
encampment and who often went out on foraging expeditions to gather food
for the troops.

Signage for Joseph Plumb Martin Trail.  I'm sure the Continental soldiers would have enjoyed skateboarding, even though it's forbidden.

for Joseph Plumb Martin Trail. I’m sure the Continental soldiers would
have enjoyed skateboarding, even though it’s forbidden.

The walk went from the Visitor Center to the Memorial Arch and back,
with stops at markers to lay wreaths and flowers to honor the soldiers
who served (and perished) during the encampment.  On the return, we were
allowed to walk at our own pace…and, in the process, stop and observe
some of the reenactors who were demonstrating drills and camp life
during that winter.

Reenactors outside Muhlenberg huts.

Reenactors outside Muhlenberg huts.

Marker for General Nathanael Greene's troops that camped at Valley Forge.

Marker for General Nathanael Greene’s troops that camped at Valley Forge.

Washington Memorial Arch.  This was not present during the encampment.

Washington Memorial Arch. This was not present during the encampment.

She first pointed out that the legend of “bloody footprints in the
snow” really was not accurate, as the soldiers did have shoes—but they
were worn. In addition, more soldiers died of disease in the spring, as
influenza, typhoid, and dysentery spread through the camp between March
and May.  The winter was actually warmer than usual, allowing troops to
begin training under the leadership of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus
von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer who drilled the troops
in the European style of fighting (which led to the Army’s victory at
the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in June 1778).

Type of signage...in this case, in front of a statue of George Washington outside the Isaac Potts House

Type of signage…in this case, in front of a statue of George Washington outside the Isaac Potts House

Isaac Potts House, also known as Washington's Headquarters.

Isaac Potts House, also known as Washington’s Headquarters.

Stables outside Washington's Headquarters...yes, the horses had better housing than the soldiers did.

Stables outside Washington’s Headquarters…yes, the horses had better housing than the soldiers did.

In fact, according to the ranger, the devastation attributed to the
Valley Forge encampment actually is more accurate for the winter camp at
Morristown, New Jersey in the winter of 1780-1781…and thus began my
vision for what I refer to as the American Revolution Magical History
Tour, during which I visited eight state and national parks that
included the War for Independence as part of its interpretive focus.

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29 Apr

The Life of a Costumed Interpreter

Back in the mid-1980s, I worked as a seasonal park
ranger/costumed interpreter at Hopewell Village National Historic Site
(now Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site) in southeastern
Pennsylvania.  Hopewell is an interesting site, as it is one of the few
historic properties operated by the National Park Service that
interprets the nation’s industrial heritage prior to the Revolution
(although the main interpretive focus at the site is the 1820-1840
period).  As a costumed interpreter, I dressed in “period” costume…mob
cap or bonnet, dress, apron, shoes, etc.  As a female, I was expected to
focus on “women’s work” at the site, which, of course, focused on
cooking, baking, cleaning, weeding, etc., since we were interpreting
early 19th century history.

Blog author wearing stylish mob cap, Summer 1984.

Blog author wearing stylish mob cap, Summer 1984.

Now women at Hopewell had quite a few
responsibilities.  Mothers were responsible for child rearing as well as
taking care of the home.  Single women worked at the moulder’s kitchen,
which essentially served as a cafeteria for workers at the iron furnace
(both single and married, since some workers lived away from the iron
plantation).  The moulder’s kitchen included the bake ovens, so when we
interpreted (explained) what was done at that part of the site, we
talked about food preparation and actually baked bread and cakes in the
bake ovens (which we then fed to the pig at the end of the workday).  We
also were responsible for visitor safety, which meant we also had to
make sure that we had to keep small children from climbing on walls, on
the top of the bake ovens, etc.—and, unfortunately, my supervisor told
us we weren’t allowed to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel when
dealing with unruly children.

Kitchen area at Moulder's Kitchen.  The food on display is not authentic to the time period interpreted at Hopewell.

Kitchen area at Moulder’s Kitchen. The food on display is not authentic to the time period interpreted at Hopewell.

The life of housewives was interpreted at another
part of the village, where the tenant or workers’ houses were located. 
Here, we prepared full meals (which also would be fed to the pig at the
end of the day), weeded the garden, chopped wood, cleaned…in other
words, we did what a typical housewife of the early 19th
century did. The other location where women’s work was demonstrated was
at the cleaning shed outside the cast house, where women and children
would clean the casting made by their husband/father before it was sent
to market.  Again, the men manufactured, and the women cleaned.

Cooking over an open hearth fireplace at one of the tenant houses.

Cooking over an open hearth fireplace at one of the tenant houses.

My last year working at Hopewell, budget cuts had reduced the living
history program to one that only included moulding and casting
demonstrations at the cast house, and I worked as a park ranger
conducting tours of the historic area.  In this role, I was better able
to provide a historical context for what was happening at Hopewell both
during the Revolution (where they produced cannon and shot for the
Continental Army war effort) and during the early 19th
century.  Instead of being in costume, I wore the standard NPS ranger
uniform, complete with the “Smokey the Bear” hat (straw, since it was
during the summer).  But I missed being in costume, because even though I
described the past in the third person (“this is what happened in the
moulder’s kitchen”) instead of first person (“I’m Ellen, and I’m one of
the girls working here in the moulder’s kitchen today”) when I was in
costume, I felt like I was more effective at presenting the past to the
public when dressed in period garb…and was more than a history teacher
who had a summer job teaching history to a non-captive audience.

The point I’m trying to make is that learning about
the past occurs in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, you read about it. 
Sometimes, you research and write about it.  Sometimes, you visit places
to see (and perhaps experience) it.  Sometimes, you get to live it like
I did during the summers of 1984 and 1985.  Most important, though, is
that the past is all around us, and it’s nothing to fear.  If anything,
the past is something to embrace, because it definitely shapes who we
are and what we hope to become.

My blog is going to focus on how visiting historic
sites can be fun.  As someone who has worked in the field, my views will
be different from those of a typical academic historian.  At the same
time, occasionally I get to see a site from someone else’s
perspective—and, in that case, the adventure is quite different from
when I experience it alone.

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