Perhaps nothing illustrates a declining awareness of American history than often-asked queries from young and old posed to Revolutionary War reenactors at flintlock target shoots, battle reenactments and educational living history presentations.
The questions: Were you at Gettysburg? Do you go to Gettysburg?
They weren’t. And they don’t.
They politely note they are highlighting the 18th-century American Revolution and not the 19th-century American Civil War.
“We see a lot of people who are not aware of this basic part of American history,” said Donald F. Yost, 53, of Robeson Township, joining three friends in period clothing of the First Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line one cold December Sunday morning as they practiced drills and hiked at French Creek State Park in Union Township.
This is probably as good an occasion as any to relate a war story from my first stint of museum employment. I’m often asked to tell it in small gatherings; indeed, it’s acquired something of a mythic status among my acquaintances. I swear this actually happened, although if it hadn’t happened to me personally I probably wouldn’t believe it myself.
Like most small museums, this one had a tiny staff. Instead of hiring somebody to man the front counter on a full-time basis we all used to rotate weekends, with each staff member minding the store every fifth or sixth Saturday and Sunday. On one of my weekends an upbeat, somewhat heavyset man—he was probably in his sixties—walked in, folded his hands on the counter, and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to the beach?”
I should note that this museum is located near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, some 350 miles from the nearest coastline. I naturally assumed that this was a lame attempt at humor and managed a polite chuckle.
Dead silence. The guy stood there with an expectant look on his face.
“Um, you’re serious,” I said.
“Yeah. About how far is it?”
I said that it depended on which beach he intended to visit. He said, “Virginia. The beach in Virginia.”
“You mean Virginia Beach?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. We’re from Virginia, and we’re trying to get to the beach.”
This man lived in Virginia, and in an attempt to get to Virginia Beach, he had driven southwestward into Tennessee, away from the coast.
I informed him that I couldn’t give him street-by-street directions from Harrogate, TN to Virginia Beach, since that wasn’t the sort of information I carried around in my head. But I told him that the first thing he needed to do was go back the way he came, since if he continued on his present course he’d cross the Mississippi, the Great Plains, and the Rockies before arriving at a beach, and when he got there it would be the wrong one. At that point he thanked me and walked back out the door.
I don’t know if he ever made it to the beach. For that matter, I don’t know how he managed to reach retirement age without winnowing himself out of the gene pool.