Saturday, July 12, 2014

Geeks Like Me

Looking for something fun to do this afternoon, I succumbed to a man in a uniform.

Fort Brady (nope, never heard of it, either) was offering a combo walking tour and photography talk led by the reliably hilarious Mike Gorman, a photo historian and park ranger, who'd won me over as a fan three years ago at a photography lecture at the Museum of the Confederacy.

That time, he hadn't even been wearing his uniform, much less the Dudley Doright hat he sported today.

I was that person who hadn't allowed enough time to get to the Fort, although in my own defense, I was delayed when a Mama deer and her young 'un suddenly appeared as I was driving through the park.

We'd played "chicken" with each other for several minutes, both of us afraid of what the other might do before I buzzed along, joining the group a tad late.

While the group had to wait, I was given my packet (maps, reports and locations) and, most importantly, my 3-D glasses. What?! This was going to be even better than I'd anticipated.

People roaming around a fort in paper glasses? Count me in.

Mike began by explaining that the photographs we'd be seeing were all taken by northern photographers who'd hoped to capture images and see them back home to people eager for a look-see at the war.

Apparently, no one made a dime because they were shooting stereo images (two negatives meant to be seen through a viewer) that cost $1.50 each, incredibly pricey at a time when soldiers made $16 a month.

"That's good for us," Mike said, "Because all these images ended up in the National Archives and the Library of Congress." As in, digitized and available to all.

Instructing us to put on our 3-D glasses, he brought out large format copies of photos of the very place we were standing, Fort Brady, a place where federal troops spent six months and where 5,000 rounds of ammunition were expended.

The photographs were fabulous. We saw images of the fort and stockade, a view of Fort Brady from the Confederate side and earthworks, the latter easy to match up to what remained of them nearby.

It was after he told us about how the 206th Pennsylvania unit had built Fort Brady (and named it after commander Hugh Brady) that more stragglers showed up for the tour.

Phew, I wasn't the only tardy student.

Ever the good ranger, he paused the talk, reached into his bag again and provided them with packets and glasses. "Souvenirs!" he said. "Gotta love 'em. Who says the government is broke?"


Moving to near the fort's property line, he showed us photos of the winter quarters built by the USCT - United States Colored Troops- who were also cropped out of the photographs so that it appeared that the white soldiers had built them.

Racism's roots run so deep in this country and we've got the photos to prove it.

It was the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Unit-Company C who took up residence at Fort Brady, firing at the Confederacy's Battery Wood across the James.

Walking to our next stop, Mike asked, "Any questions? I love 'em, by the way!"

His enthusiasm for the first ever 3-D photography tour was infectious - he had found the old sets of stereo images and used software to make them 3-D again - and he encouraged us to go looking online ourselves to find interesting stuff.

"There are two discoveries to be made here. You don't have to be a geek like me, although your certainly can be. Don't think that all this is anything but one geek with time on his hands."

When he led us under some trees, we were standing exactly where the next photo we saw had been taken and the resemblance between the 150 year old photograph and the live view was startling.

Frequently he made the point that the photos were not just documentation but art, as in soldiers took time out of the war to have their pictures taken. The process then took 30 minutes, so there was no pointing and shooting. And, lest we forget, shells were constantly flying.

One of the most impressive images he brought out was a panoramic shot of Fort Brady in its entirety. "Any questions about that awesome panorama I just showed you?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye, clearly pleased at having shared his discovery.

On to our final stop, he took a dip in a divot and in his best ranger voice warned us, "Don't do what I just did. There's a hole right there!" Not just funny but safety-conscious.

Of course, his finish was spectacular. He took us to a place in the earthworks where guns were once lined up to fire at the enemy and showed us a shot of a massive 100-pound gun, a testament to 19th century firepower.

But then the photographer seemed to be inspired. He brought in two soldiers, one to pretend he was abut to fire, another on the ground.

Then another was taken, this one with dozens more soldiers, including a man with a flag on top of the fortification for sheer effect. By the final shot, it appeared that the entire fort had decided to get into the act with men milling about everywhere.

I guess the war was on a break right about then.

"Images tell us something," Mike said, summing up. "These photographs were taken to show people that we were winning the war."

To close out the tour, Mike made a pitch for all of us to follow our curiosity about history to the online archives to see what we might find ourselves.

"If you Google the Library of Congress, kiss your free time good-bye," he warned us with the assurance of one who had kissed. "I'm not kidding."

An older guy near me chimed in, "He's right. I Googled Library of Congress one day at 5:00 and when I looked up it was 11:00 and I had no idea."

I admit, as a photography lover, I'd be curious to see what's in the archives. But honestly, I'd rather wait for the next of Ranger Mike's tours to see what he's dug up and hear him crack wise for an hour.

When someone asked him about his work with Richmond Battlefield Park, the liberal arts major quipped, "The Park Service, employing the unemployable for decades."

Asked if Richmond was where he wanted to work, he answered,"Always. Sure Gettysburg is cool, but that was just three days. Here, it was four years!"

Like images, the Summer Ranger series teaches us something. I now know not only where Fort Brady is, but what went on there. But on a Saturday afternoon, it's about more than a lesson.

It's about thanking the war gods that the government isn't so broke that it can't employ witty rangers to share their geeky finds.

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