Friday, September 26, 2008

Some Kiwi Levity

On the road, I do my best to keep my spirits up. Not a day should go by that I do not force myself into tears with something I think is funny. Well, I discovered this New Zealand (Kiwi) duo on HBO awhile back. They were semi-famous in New Zealand but huge in Australia, Britain and the U.S. You can even get there Grammy Award-winning CD at Target. Well, here's a little gift that should put a smile on your face. Especially, if you took French in school. There humor is usually quite cheeky (perhaps too much for some) but they have become two of my constant companions. Ladies and Gentlemen, I introduce to you, Flight of the Conchords. Click HERE to watch the video.

Gettysburg - The Last Full Measure

I had made this run years back, but now I did it alone. In the same place where 215 of my fellow Minnesotans had fallen! If you are a Minnesotan, than this is one pilgrimage you must take at least once in your life - the 1st Minnesota Regimental Monument in Gettysburg.

The battlefield of Gettysburg is much the same as it was the day before the battle, with the exception of the military presence. Basically, it's all Pennsylvania farmland. The only structures that you see are the occasional gigantic barn, small wooden or brick farmhouse and thousands of monuments, plaques and statues.

You can go online or into the brand new visitors center (which is brand new and phenomenal!) to get your park map of the Gettysburg battlefield. I chose to make the drive myself, but the possibilities abound. You can hire your own guide to go with you in your car, pick up an audio tour to listen to in your car, go on a tour bus, ride a horse with a guide as you listen to a tour on headphones or participate in a class or school group.

I had taught in detail about this specific battle for 10 years. It wasn't so much that I believed I knew it all (God, I'd love to learn every last detail there was about this battle), it was more that I wanted to go on my own place, saunter in the oddest of places and, of course, get some footage for work.

As you drive your car down the paved roads, you go at a slow pace, and when you wish to stop, pull over and park on the right-side of the road.

You begin by passing behind the Confederate lines. Here you see plaques which denote where each state regiment was posted. The southerners looked out across flat farm fields for most of the most part. Their far right flank, however, disappeared in the woods and boulders leading up to Big and Little Round Top.

The battle took place mostly south of downtown Gettysburg. The Union had a defensive position on higher ground to the east and the south was expected to attack from their lower position to the west, moving east.

Now, I could spend forever talking about this battle in detail, and bore most to tears, but will try to sum it up as I did in the video.

So, why is Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863 such a big deal? Well, for one, this was the first major engagement on northern soil. Most battles had taken place in the south, devastating much of it. (This is one reason that even today, southerners have more of a memory of this war than does the north.) The war was growing increasingly unpopular in the north. In a war that was supposed to last only a few weeks, it had now turned into years. General Lee realized he only had to have one significant victory in the north and the people would sue for peace.

Second, the scale of this battle was unlike any other. Approximately, 170,000 American soldiers took part in this battle. More than 51,000 would become casualties. These were all Americans, willing to die for what they believed in.

Third, this was the turning point of the war. General Lee realized it was all or nothing. They could no longer play the cat and mouse game they were playing. They were not trying to take over the north, nor remain separate, but defend their right to exist as they so chose. The south was weakening and the northern public opinion waning. One would have to break first and this battle would determine it.

The battlefield is huge and you could spend forever describing that too. Instead, I'll focus on three definitive episodes.

On day two of the battle, with no overly successful advance of the south, Major General Sickles decided to do something against orders. He stretched out or left flank so bad that a hole developed. The south had their chance. Advancing up the difficult, rocky terrain of Little Round Top, nothing much stood in the way but the 20th Maine, with the school teacher Chamberlain in command. They were down to their very last bullets and then, they lead a downhill charge with bayonets, driving the Confederates back and saving our Union flank!

Sickle's movement caused problems in the center of our battle line as well.

Oh, and the story of Sickle's is interesting as well. He shot and killed the son of Francis Scott Key (who wrote the Star Spangled Banner) across the steps of the U.S. Capitol and was the first person to succesfully use the temporary insanity defense in court. He also left his pregnant wife at home while he went to England and introduce his prostitute campanion to Queen Victoria. Read up on him for more.

Anyhoo, a hole appeared in our line, General Hancock looked down to see no one except 262 Minnesotans laying down in wait. He ordered them to take on the Confederates (six times their numbers). Without questions the Minnesotan, formed up, shoulder to shoulder and ran at the double-quick. As each man fell, the Minnesotans would close back together, shoulder to shoulder. The Confederates were forced into retreat, giving the North time to fix the hole. The Minnesotans had saved the North from certain defeat, with the cost of 215 casualties. This still stands as the largest regimental loss in a single engagement in U.S. history!

Finally, on day three, the south realized it had to do something dramatic. Time was running out. Thus formed Pickett's Charge. Over 12,000 Confederates marched across the battlefield. Torn to pieces by Union artillery and then rifle-fire, still they came on! Some would make it to the low stone wall and cross over. (A hole in the line defended by remaining Minnesotans). This dramatic event was known as the "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy. The remainder of the war saw the Confederacy sink back into defensive and retreating position.

General Lee would later see no reason to continue. (He, by the way was offered command of the Union forces by Lincoln, detested slavery and disagreed with the south braking away. But first and foremost, Robert E. Lee was a Virginian!) He would later surrender.

A final battle note: President Lincoln would give the Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago," at a place where now stands the cemetery. A bust of his head stands where he gave his speech. His address took two minutes. The guy that opened for him spoke for two hours.

Well, perhaps I should end it. I don't know if this history helps anyone!

But I poked around, hid behind the boulders at Little Round Top, ran where the 1st Minnesota charged the Rebs, stepped over the wall at Pickett's Charge, stood where Robert Lee did and poked around in some woods.

It's a sombering place. Yeah, I suppose it can become boring with so much to see. But I find that if you focus on stuff that's important to you, like the place where your fellow statesmen fought, it can become more important to you.

Just think of that hole in the Union line that all observers could see! That mass of gray moving to split the north in half. When all of a sudden a small blue form amassed, charging into insermountable odds! Yeah, that was us, if you call yourself a Minnesotan! First state to offer troops to Lincoln and who developed a reputation of running forward whilst others ran away.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Mollies, Hershey Chocolate and Civil War Haunts

Expecting the town of Jim Thorpe to be much like any other of the Poconos villages, I was really struck by how unique it was. It is located further south, in another nook of the mountains. What hit me first was looking at it from above, the steeples and building rooftops standing out from the trees.

(On a quite bizarre and humorous note - I spotted a church advertisement decorated with a cross and reading: "Let's Nail Down a Date, 10:30 Sunday." Ouch! Interesting play on words?)

I pulled down into the village, and noticed immediately, the rich preservation of the architecture and compact layout of the town. The main road rose up a steep hill and carved its way up the mountain. The sun was just coming over the mountain and hitting the myriad of colors and angles that have stood there for more than a century.

My shoot was at one of the town's most historic landmarks, the Inn at Jim Thorpe. This was a haunted building and has been featured on many TV shows and the like. Most of my shooting time is being alone in rooms and other parts of properties. It's shoots like these where it becomes very cool. Alone in old rooms and less visited parts of historic structures.

Well, no ghosties for me, but I did have time to chat with a few housekeepers and the like. It's the experiences of the more skeptical that are more intriguing. Such as a businessman who was a regular customer, feeling someone sitting on his bed and then seeing the sheet covering him lift up and off. As is the case with many a ghost incidence, objects will be moved from one place to another.

Jim Thorpe was named after the phenomenal Native American athlete Jim Thorpe who was stripped of his Olympic medal when it was discovered he had played pro. But later, the U.S. re-accepted him and this town agreed to take his name as their own.

It was formally known as Mauch Chunk and was the home to the Molly Maguires. This band of Irishman fought for the rights of miners and in doing so killed people. The leaders were hanged but now stand as martyrs for basic human rights. The Hibernian society holds them in special regard. Sean Connery and Richard Harris stared in a movie that brought them to the forefront of American pop culture and conciousness. Parts of the film were actually thought in Jim Thorpe. it's totally worth the watch if you've the time! I visited the old jail where they were held and hanged. Bummed that it was closed, I peaked around the old structure and took a few shots.

The town was alive with workers making restoration repairs, train tours down at the tracks and small shops open along the the rising road. The tripod and camera gets heavy on such long jaunts but it all is well worth it.

After eating a fab sandwich at a little cafe and chatting to the owner, who was complaining about some nuts burning shrubs in the back of the buildings, I took off. My hopes were to hit Hershey Pennsylvania before 4pm.

Further south I drove and entered Hershey. I was literally salivating, the thought of creamy milk chocolate streams running through my mind. All at once you are in the town and the factory, with its twin smokestacks and large factory building, giving the impression you are in Wonkaville. I drove down Cocoa and Chocolate Ave. and finally found the tour.

Somewhat like a combination of Chucky Cheese and Disney, the tour is now a ride through scenes of animated singing cows and reproductions of the chocolate making process. Disappointed that that was all it was, I was happy to find the chocolate store before closing. Though not the same as swimming in a stream of chocolate, a candy bar or two or three is some consolation. And yes, you can actually smell chocolate in the air all around downtown Hershey!

I had sushi and spoke with the owner who was actually from Vietnam. After a good meal and conversation I took off. It then dawned upon me, to my horror, that I had forgotten to pay!!! So, zooming back to the restaurant, feeling like the biggest schmuck in the world, I apologized and paid my bill. :(

Today the shoot went quick and smooth and I drove south through the Mason-Dixon line and back into Pennsylvania and into Fairfield, near Gettysburg. This is hilly farmland and the land of the Civil War (the northernmost points , that is.) Old barns and houses that had stood since the time of the war make you happy that they are still standing!

To end the day I head to downtown Gettysburg for the ghost tour. I'd been to the battlefield but never the town. I have to say that the town is as striking as the field. Other than the cars you could have been in 1863. The night dark helped to darken the mood and make it perfect for the tour. But it still feels alive and comfortable for a night-time stroll.

In many of the windows of the old row houses were little candle lights. Each building that has stood since the time of the engagement had little metal plaque and there were a lot of those! Our tour brought us to stories of the Civil War soldiers that still roam the old buildings. In fact, I'll leave a little picture of one house in particular that had many sightings. Even during one of the tours, people had evidentally watched sightings happen before their eyes. Who knows? But it is a fun way to see the old historic town!

Tomorrow will see a whole day devoted to Gettysburg, visiting that most haunted place in the U.S. Having seen over 51,000 casualties in three days, if ghosts haunt anywhere that seems to be an appropriate place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Autumn!

A happy first day of Autumn to all, from the land of the Poconos. The air has been crisp, clean and cool during the evening but the temperature rising up to the pleasant 70's during the day.

The sun has been a frequent visitor. However, an autumn fog pays a visit ever so often in the early morning. It drapes itself heavy on the mountain and there are even large white circles on some of the highways to act as reference points in spacing yourself from the car in front of you. As noted before, the roads are very zig-zaggy and 'Y' intersections common. It's tough being at a stop sign, craning your neck to see if a car may be coming, when the intersection is shaped like a Greek lower-case lamda 'λ.' I'll often spot a tricky curve or hidden turn off and search for a memorial marker off the side of the road. They seem to be a relatively common thing on these twisty routes.

Many of the Poconos towns are like little versions of Stillwater, Minnesota. Built on the Delaware or smaller versions of it, small villages focused on milling or tanning sprung up.

I've had a chance to poke around after or between shoots and take in what I can. The Italian influence if very noticeable. Within most towns, at least half of the restaurants are owned by and serve, Italian food. So, I've been taking full advantage of every joint I can find. In Hawley one night, I went into the sleepy town and visited such an establishment. I ordered some spaghetti and meatballs. The feel was cozy and simple, with at least three old couples eating and the owners going back and forth between the kitchen and a table with their family members at it. That is quite a common scene in most these Italian joints. I find great comfort in stuffing my face with spaghetti and meatballs and watching the families interact.

In Milford, a town notable for its Victorian architecture, I visited a famous 'pork' shop called Fretta's. Boy oh boy! The meat hung from everywhere! I was given samples of the capicola and salivated over their cheese, marinated artichokes, peppers, mushrooms, olives, and dry goods. They originated in Little Italy and were known originally as a 'pork shop' since they immigrated into communities that were mainly Jewish and Irish before them.

It's funny to talk to these folk, with their New York, New Jersey and Philly accents and attitudes. As I listen to them go on and on and on and start to realize that, damn! This is what it must be like for my friends when I ramble on and on and don't shut the hell up! It is such a cultural thing. You need to get a German, Irishman or Norweigan liquored up before they start to sound like a dago! Oh, and by the way, when I looked up the derragatory term 'dago' being used for the name of a sandwich... The very first reference was to a story done by Minnesota Public Radio. And where did they visit? Yarussos! So, lots of wonderful Italian food and people around here. I will miss that quite a bit when I leave here.

Hawley, Miford and oh yes, Honesdale. A longer stretch of town which bore similarities to the others, but with pointier church steeples. Just one block off the main drag there were three tall churches, each in succession of one another. As with all of these towns, its very pretty to see the church steeple or cornices of old buildings against the tree covered mountains in the background. Calling them hills would be more appropriate, since that is what they look like. But they are beautiful.

As far as wildlife, there is a lot of oppossum roadkill. Squirrles love playing in the trees and its common to hear the screech, screech of a hawk. Deer are plentiful and the Fall Web Worm, a type of catepillar, builds webby masses in many of the leafy trees. Inside you see the little wormies, curled leaves and scat.

The woods are lush and gorgeous. Just tonight I took a little stroll in a fruitless search for the remains of the French-Indian War Fort Hyndshaw. The walk was along the ridge of a bluff. The setting sun made orange the trees and foliage and the high branches raised the ceiling of the canopy to decent heights. White-tail deer sprung through the ferns and the chill brought a certain stillness. There was maple, ash, hickory, birch, oak and other trees I was clueless about. Vinca grows quite freely on the bed of the woods.

Delaware Water Gap is the name of the town and location where the river cuts through the Poconos mountains. A glacier once split them in two and the rock is left exposed. You look over at New Jersey and see a jagged cliff face rising many hundreds of feet upwards.

Above Delaware Water Gap is a small village called Shawnee. Here you can find the Shawnee Inn (haunted), where once Jackie Gleason played golf. He would also frequent a locals pool-hall in the village as well. Lucile Ball, Eisenhower and Bob Hope made visits and Mr. Green Jeans, from Captain Kangaroo once lived there. At the top of the village was the old Presbyterian Church and graveyard, with graves going back into the 1700's. They had a puzzle of how they were going to fit the church in the graveyard and decided they would just incorporate them into the tombstone. I searched, and was able to find a tombstone of a French-Indian War Vet!

I've made a visit to the Poconos Indian Museum. It was quite basic and very low budget. But, I will admit that it was one of the best museums I've been in. You had tape recorder on which you pushed the play button and walked through the small hallways. The information was clear, well-researched and concise, the displays excellent at interpreting information and the artifact collection superb. They also had a medicinal listing of plants once used and cites for their research. The Linape were tricked by settlers in a deal called the "Walking Purchase" which is worth looking up.

This blog is infrequent, jumbled and rushed as I've been spending any down time planning and managing. With another guy on the road to manage in addition to myself, I've been able to structure the show and also orchestrate some of what is happening back at headquarters as well. Just last night I had to plot my next journey of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York, all of which I'm doing in October. The other guy I'm sending to the Adirondacks and Catskills. So, autumn will be spent in a place that will be wonderful to experience autumn! In other words, its been hectic but exciting, in a way.

I'll be heading down to the haunted Jim Thorpe Inn tomorrow and then down to Fairfield and Gettysburg (speaking of haunted places) along the border and then shooting back up to the Poconos. Yo-yo style!

Here's to Rick Wright, the PInk Floyd keyboardist that passed away last week and now has joined the Great Gig in the Sky.

Must run now, but I hope to catch you soon!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Picking My Nose in the Poconos

Looking down from the prop-driven airplane, we were flying low, giving one a nice view of the Pennsylvania landscape from Philadelphia to Scranton. The low, soft mountains are almost completely covered in trees. It looked like the head of broccoli below. Occasionally, you will see a break caused by the checker-board green of farmlands, the snakey dark lines of rivers, and paths made by powerline swaths. At the top of many of these mountains spun the vanes of white windmills. The blades, like so many toothpicks, drew power from the windy perch.

Automatically upgraded to a Ford Explorer (I won't complain!) I popped off to the village of Waymart.

The roads through these low mountains seem to be mostly narrow two-lanes. They weave and drop and rise through the many forests. Pennsylvania, meaning "Penn's Woods" was given to William Penn by Charles II. As I wound my way through the deciduous haven, the name began to have a bit more significance.

I can't overstate the number of farms you see along the way. Old barns, painted the color of iron-base red, sit snug in hidden valleys. Rows of stone fences, picked from the fields decades ago, corale small herds of cattle or horses. Houses have been built in similar niches and fields of goldenrod have reclaimed older farm fields.

It is beautiful. The sun warmed the scene and the lack of busy traffic made me feel like I had some private time to take it in. Save the animals, it made me feel like I was all alone. The problem? The problem was the fact that the road was narrow and there was no good place to pull off. Most of my search was in vain. I saw so many places that I had to go explore, but no good place to venture off from!

Honesdale was where I found the most civilization. This small town was the county seat and had much of the old, late 1800's architecture you want in a nostalgic place. I decided to go eat at Elegante, one of many Italian-American joints you find out here. The veal and pepper sandwich hit the spot. Capicola, veal, and peppers seem pretty common on the menus out here. You don't see 'dagos,' a fact one my Italian friends from Philly once noted. The mystery remains = why do Italian joints in the midwest and some places elsewhere, use the derogatory term for the respective Italian sandwich?

Tuesday, with shoots being done, I stopped at Lake Wallypaupak. The shoreline was full of loose rock, much of it the blue stone so famous in this region. People had made piles of precariously placed rocks upon the beach. This neo-lithic gesture seemed appropriate in a land once inhabited by the Delaware Indians.

As my lodging Monday evening consisted of yet another musty house, it helped to sour the mood a tad bit. It didn't help that they had neglected to put sheets on the beds either. However, Tuesday's abode sits on the opposite side of that spectrum.

Built as a mountain-escape by millionaire Joseph Hirshhorn, when the rest of the country was living through the depression, this French-style manor sits atop the mountains. Usually a place for honeymooners and the like, the view is one of an Appalachian valley below.

It was refreshing to check in, sip a glass of golden Madeira (a sweet wine made popular during the colonial period) and gaze out at the Appalachian valley below.

The current owner told me how Hirshorn made inroads for the Jewish community in the region. As many of the establishments did not serve Jews, his children would pick Huckleberries in the surrounding woods and sell them to the inhabitants below. The proceeds would then go back to the Jewish community. Would could all learn a lot from that take on a crummy deal. When life gives you Huckleberries...

The evening before the shoot I had decided to take dinner. I sat alone outside as the chill mountain air moved in. I was given a creamy peach and ginger potage, compliments of the chef. It was fresh and peachy and I relished each miniature spoonful. After my salad I was given a light sorbet to cleanse the palate. With my duck I had the light house red wine. As far as the duck, the presentation was very nice. The medalions splayed out like a deck of cards and covered with sweet sauce. The vegetables were equally artistic. The taste? Umm, the duck was like a fatty, crusty pork covered in grape jelly. Imagine that and you'll now how it tasted. The night grew cold and I returned to my fireplace.

The morning shoot was bright and sunny. A more beautiful day could not be asked for. I left that Hirshorn chateau (his art collection once displayed there now resides in the Smithsonian, anyoo...) and head to Skytop.

Skytop Lodge is of equal stature but on a larger scale. This mighty lodge resembles something out of Rhode Island or better yet, a little Versailles. It dates back to the 20's and has an immense ground and gardens. An American estate house.

The shoot lasted forever, but I was able to dawdle on the green before the lodge. I remarked at the fact that their was high occupancy but no other people on the grounds. The flowers in the gardens were kept company by busy bees and the flap of Monarch butterflies.

After a sub par Italian dinner in the valley below, I returned to the lower level of the lodge for a chocolate malt. The girl behind the counter shared some of the lodges ghost stories. The ambiance could not be better! Here we were in the basement of the lodge, in the 'Tea Room' which was nothing more than a little ice cream bar and small shop, up a few steps and extending down into a narrow room. The lower level ran the entire span of the lodge containing a billards room, a bar, many adjacent curious rooms and at the furthest end, through winding corridors, the 20's style swimming pool.

She mentioned being with the manager at closing and hearing a loud woman's sigh in the very room they were standing. The night auditor reports receiving calls from the attic and from the library, immediately across the way. There are ghosts that have favorite seats in the dining room and a perpetually cold spot there as well. Most stories concern room 409.

After our chat I decided to head to spooky places. Down a basement corridor I stared at old photographs mounted on the walls and the longer I stayed, the more I realized I had hightened my senses. I'm sure I could imagine up any ghost at that point. But I went up staircases and down hallways. This was very reminiscent of the Shining. I ran in to no one until I went up to room 409. I small-talked to relieve our mutual anxiety as I passed. It must of been an employee, turning the beds down. I kicked myself for not asking to see the inside of the room!

So, those are the stories thus far from the Poconos. Look for your some of your own ghost stories this week!