Flaming June

June started with a bang.  We had a few days of raging storms.  My kids enjoyed it when it was at the torrential rain stage.  They love summer rain storms because it is warm and they can run around and get soaked without it being uncomfortable.  The rain was soon joined by thunder and lightning and high winds.  Trees came down all over our neighbourhood and wiped out power lines with them.  Amazingly, given our past luck with such things, we didn’t lose power, suffered no damage, and didn’t experience any flooding.  We were very grateful.

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How is everyone faring with wearing masks?  Back in March, I never thought I would get used to it.  I have a more robust one with filters that I use for when I go grocery shopping and am in a confined space and I must admit I am still pretty wimpy with that one.  It still makes me feel a bit claustrophobic – and gives me even more admiration for those on the front lines wearing PPE all day every day.  If we are out walking, we use lightweight neck gaiters as we usually don’t have to come within even 10 feet of other people but it gives us the option of quickly pulling it up if we have to pass someone on a narrower trail path.  I am otherwise getting used to wearing masks.  I read some time ago that it takes 6 weeks to develop a habit and I guess that holds true for this experience.  We also now treat them as accessories.  I got the boys some masks in fun fabrics and I even bought myself one with thistle fabric on it.  Thistles are my national flower, of course, so it seemed apt.

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Our county moved from red phase into yellow phase in early June which gave us more freedom for getting out and about.  We remain cautious so don’t want to be around people as much as possible.  We, therefore, went for a trek around Gettysburg since the National Park covers such an expanse of land and we were familiar enough with it to be able to predict which areas might be busier.  As you will know, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he likes to visit Gettysburg every couple of years at least.  We have some places that we always return to but he tries to introduce us to a new area of the battlefield each time we return.

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This time, the new area for exploration was Pickett’s Charge.  That is, of course, the famous culminating action of the Battle of Gettysburg when an infantry assault by the Confederates ended in defeat.  We have actually seen Pickett’s grave because we are history nerds and I like cemeteries.  We were led to the Copse of Trees which I thought was just a copse of trees without the capitalization.  Turns out the Copse is of such historical importance that they are protected by a fence.  From what I can recall from Mr Pict’s lecture, as a distinct landscape feature, the copse was a focal point for the charge and also ended up marking the high water mark of the confederacy in this battle.  There is a monument to commemorate this fact at the spot.

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We then walked the field to gain a sense of the distance of the charge.  Or at least we attempted to cover the expanse.  We gave up about half way and turned back because we were getting covered with ticks.  Between the six of us, we picked off over a dozen ticks just while walking in that field.  We would have been exceedingly wimpy Civil War soldiers since we could not even handle parasitic insects.  Retreating from the field, we had a moment of rest and shade at the Pennsylvania Monument.

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As I mentioned before, there are areas of Gettysburg that we always head to: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  As we had suspected would be the case, Little Round Top was far too busy for our liking.  There were far fewer people than we have ever encountered there before but, of course, those previous visits were not during a pandemic.  We managed to maintain an adequate distance from everyone but it was too stressful an experience since some folks were not observing social distancing guidance and were also not wearing face coverings.  Devil’s Den was less busy but we were having to pass people at too close quarters for comfort so we didn’t stay long.

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June also meant we arrived at the end of the school year.  It has definitely been a memorable and challenging school year.  I absolutely commend my sons’ teachers for doing the absolute best they could with the resources they had and all at short notice.  However, distance learning was a bit of an ordeal to say the least and I am certainly relieved to have at least a break from it.  Goodness knows what school will look like in September.  I have to trust that the school district will strike an appropriate balance and shore up the resources for whatever option they decide to pursue.  Anyway, two of my children completed their final grades in their present schools and are moving on to pasture’s new in September – whether physically, virtually, or a hybrid.  Instead of the usual festivities, celebratory trips, and promotion ceremonies, they had car parades and virtual ceremonies.  I confess I think I actually prefer the car parades to the usual ceremony where we bake in the heat.

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Now that we don’t have distance learning to create structure and routine and keep everyone occupied, we have a long summer stretching ahead of us.  My boys are all at such a wide spans of ages, stages, and areas of interest that I can no longer impose unified summer projects on them as had been the case in summers past.  Instead, each kid has had to pick a project they are working on over the summer.  The three older boys are actually continuing with distance learning – taking courses on coding, cinema history, and Latin – and my youngest is going to work through a number of different projects, some with me and some solo.  Meanwhile, I have written myself a lengthy To Do list of domestic projects to tackle, some larger than others, and I always have my ongoing hobbies.  Most of our activities won’t be worth blogging about but our intention is to keep busy, productive, and stimulated during this socially isolated summer.

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June marked the 45th anniversary of the cinema release of my favourite movie of all time – Jaws.  I have written before about my fanatacism about this movie, including when I drew an illustration of the protagonists.  My 13 year old has inherited my love of the movie and an obsession with sharks.  You might recall that we took a trip last summer to visit the sites of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the novel that was the basis of the movie. I have several Jaws items around the house, a Jaws board game, and a Jaws tea mug.  We, therefore, had to mark the occasion with a family watch of the movie on the anniversary.

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Also, am I the only person who is still doing a ridiculous amount of baking during this pandemic?  I am a really pretty good cook but I am no great shakes as a baker.  When it comes to the former, I use my experience to eyeball a lot of ingredients and I treat recipes as mere suggestions and make up meals from scratch.  The latter requires precision in measuring and actually following a recipe step by step.  It is too much like science for my Arts and Humanities brain.  I can bake things like cookies, brownies, banana bread, and basic cakes, but I am not great at anything more complex.  But for some reason I have been baking non-stop during this past few months and even more so since the kids’ distance learning wrapped up.  Like Pavlov’s Dogs, my kids now pretty much expect a freshly baked sweet treat.  This is not a good state of affairs.  I am gaining pandemic pounds for sure.  My youngest son is helping me with baking.  We recently made brownies topped with cookie dough.  We need an intervention.

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I have created a long list of home improvement type things I want to accomplish over the summer break.  It didn’t look like much on paper but already I think I might have been over-ambitious.  Our house ended up rather chaotic after the basement flood, then we switched rooms around with having created a new bedroom in the basement and my husband having to work from home for however many months.  Multiple rooms in the house, therefore, have to be reorganised and – quite frankly – ruthlessly purged.  I started with my youngest son’s bedroom.  I thought I would get it done in a day, maybe two.  Nope.  A week.  It took an entire week just to clean, sort, and organize his bedroom.  It generated five bags of trash and two large boxes of items to be donated.  Now my To Do list that once looked like a sprint now looks like a marathon.

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Annual Gettysburg Trip

As I have related on the blog many times before, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd.  As such, we end up visiting Gettysburg at least once a year.  This past weekend was time for our 2016 pilgrimage to the battlefield.  It seemed apt to have a family day trip as a last Summer outing since the climate switched almost overnight from muggy summer days to chilly Autumnal ones.

What we try to do when we visit Gettysburg is to balance out revisiting favourite haunts – namely Little Round Top and Devil’s Den – with visiting new areas of the battlefield so that eventually the children gain a fuller understanding and experience of the history of that particular battle and its place in the context of the War.  So, for example, over the past couple of years we have visited McPherson’s Ridge, the National Cemetery, and the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This time we decided to visit the Museum housed inside the Visitor Centre.

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Mr Pict specifically wanted the boys to see the Cyclorama.  I had last seen it in 1995 when it was basically lining the walls of a barn somewhere on the battlefield site and it had very little impact on me.  It is much better displayed now, with good quality lighting, and lighting effects that complement the audio narrative.  The cyclorama – a 360 degree painting – was completed by a French artist named Philippoteaux in the 1880s and has been on display at Gettysburg since the early 20th Century.  The painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, a climactic moment in the battle.  It is a wonderfully detailed painting with its attention to detail, its use of perspective and scale, and its immersive qualities.  It made much more of an impression on me this time.  The kids, not so much.  They preferred the video narrated by Morgan Freeman that we watched prior to seeing the cyclorama.

The cyclorama tickets also covered the Museum so we headed there next.  It is actually a very impressive museum.  There is a lot crammed into a reasonably compact space but the flow was well engineered and the artifacts and displays thoughtfully organised.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the furniture from some of the homes in Gettysburg that bore the marks of bullets and shells and spoke to how the ordinary people of the town experienced the battle.  Unfortunately, the boys did not engage in the museum at all.  They had been dragged around the National Civil War Museum just over a year earlier so in some ways it was fair enough.  With the exception of Mr Pict, we all have a limit to how much we can absorb about that particular period of American history.

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It was, therefore, time to burn off some energy, let the kids clamber and climb, and basically return to their feral ways.  We headed first to Devil’s Den where they always love to climb and jump from rock to rock.  They also have some favourite nooks and crannies where they like to hide.  For the younger boys, there are lots of opportunities for imaginative play.  My oldest meanwhile found a rock to perch on and then read a novel while his brothers played.  Then we moseyed our way up to Little Round Top where they could do more climbing, including of the tower, and take in the views.  The boys were completely happy and eventually had to be dragged back to the car so we could head home.  The lesson learned was that all trips to Gettysburg need to involve freedom of movement and the ability to be wild things.

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Gettysburg – Again

On the second day of our trip to the Harrisburg area, we took a jaunt to Gettysburg.  It seemed apt given the previous day’s visit to the National Civil War Museum but in all honesty we largely went because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd and because the boys love galloping around the landscape of the battlefield.  This was our third family visit to Gettysburg since we arrived in America almost two years ago – Mr Pict’s fourth.  I would like each trip to be a little different so in addition to returning to some favourite areas we try to visit at least one new area each time.

On this particular trip the new area we added was the location where the battle actually began, around McPherson Ridge, not far from the Lutheran Seminary.  Mr Pict explained the lay of the land, the rationale behind the defensive positions and how the battle began.  He pointed out Chambersburg Pike was the place where the first shots of the battle were fired by a Union soldier named Marcellus Jones.  The boys were not much captivated by this chatter about strategy and topography and instead were far more interested in studying some ants who were covering a dried up earthworm.  Meanwhile, I went to look at the statuary in the area.  One was a statue of General Buford who had been the chap to recognise the importance of holding the high ground on that spot until reinforcements arrived; the other statue was of General Reynolds on horseback in the spot where he was shot and killed on the first day of the battle.

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I like memorial statuary so, back in the car, I kept having my husband stop the car so that I could leap out and take a photo of one I had not seen before and wanted to go and study.  One such statue was of a man named John Burns, not a soldier but a citizen from the town of Gettysburg.  This 69 year old man decided to fight alongside a Pennsylvanian regiment, functioning as a sharpshooter.  When he was wounded for a third time, the retreating Union troops had to leave him behind on the field.  He cleverly got rid of his weapon and ammunition so that when he was discovered by Confederate soldiers he could convince them he was a noncombatant, a lie that saved his life.

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Among my other new statues for the day were the North Carolina monument and the Longstreet statue.  The North Carolina monument was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum who was also responsible for the presidential heads of Mount Rushmore.  As might be expected, therefore, the faces were particularly skilfully rendered, expressive and evocative.  The figures are shown advancing as part of Pickett’s Charge.  According to an inscription nearby, a quarter of all of the casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg hailed from North Carolina.  The statue of James Longstreet is set among a grove of trees and depicts him on his horse Hero.  I love the movement of the horse.  It’s a really dynamic sculpture.  It is notable also for being a statue of a General placed at ground level rather than on a plinth.

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I had driven past the State of Virginia Monument before but had never stopped to look at it.  This time I hopped out and had a good look.  It is a very tall and imposing monument at 41 feet.  It is topped by an equestrian statue of Robert E Lee.  Apparently the sculptor, Frederick Sievers, was so intent on getting Traveler the horse right that he studied horses who were the same height and build as Lee’s horse and even Traveler’s skeleton.  Virginia contributed more soldiers to the Confederate army at Gettysburg than any other state and these soldiers are represented at the base of the statue, different types of men and boys who constituted the army.

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We happened upon a reenactment group as we were flitting around between monumental statues.  While one chap explained about the equipment the soldiers used and the things they had to carry, a troop – complete with drummers – marched around the field and then demonstrated firing their weapons.  Our 6 year old really enjoyed watching the reenactors but we did not stay for their entire performance because we were slowly melting in the midday sun.

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Then it was time to go and visit the boys’ favourite spots: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  The great thing about both locations is that it is possible to visually comprehend how that stage of the battle unfolded, the strategies and logistics involved.  The best thing about both locations is that we can permit the boys to become free range.  They enjoyed roaming around, scurrying over the rocky terrain, leaping from boulder to boulder.  They gave three older men dressed in Union uniforms palpitations with their antics.  They particularly enjoyed Devil’s Den because of all of its little nooks and crannies, little caves they could hide in.  They also developed a kind of parkour, bounding and jumping and leaping between rocks, getting higher and higher.  It made me anxious to watch them.

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After a visit to the spot where Alexander Gardner had staged his famous and controversial photograph of the Rebel Sharpshooter, we completed our tour of Gettysburg for the day.  I think next time we return – because a return is inevitable – we should spend some time in the actual town of Gettysburg.

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*Note* You can see my previous blog posts about Gettysburg here and here.