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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Whiplash!  Out of total despair -- into sublime joy!

Yesterday, upon arrival at the Visitor Center for my first program of the day, the familiar big yellow school bus arrived from Vacaville, California.  Pouring out of it were 55 high school students with perhaps 5 instructors.  It had been explained that these kids were advanced placement students and had studied this era so were prepped for my talk.  Still  I was more than a bit apprehensive.  The inescapable feeling of late, that someone far younger than I should be interacting with teens -- that the distance between their ages and mine was simply too great for me to hold their interest.  I felt so inadequate.  These could be my grand- and great-grandchildren! Why did anyone believe that this was appropriate?  One of the younger ranger surely should be interpreting this history for them.

But this had been scheduled for me, and there was nothing to do but comply.  Later in the day, at my 2 o'clock presentation, I would have the grownups, and my confidence would return as before.

To add to the confusion, two members of the team who will be filming my talk had arrived and were standing at the back of the theater trying to scope out the existing lighting and to learn how to supplement ...

The kids got seated and I introduced the 15-minute orientation film without incident.  When the lights dimmed and I did the usual -- moved my wooden stool to a place against the wall just beyond the entrance and the black velvet curtain intended to dampen the sounds from the hallway.  It was then that the curtain was drawn back slightly and Wes, one of the docents, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that there was an urgent telephone call from Tom, our superintendent, - and I must immediately go into Elizabeth's office to answer.

Mind you, I'm still wearing a lapel mike attached to my necktie and it was live!

I made my way across the short hallway; picked up the phone, and at the other end of the line was Director Jon Jarvis of the National Park Service calling from Washington to announce an invitation for me to attend the tree lighting ceremony at the White House with the First Family on December 3rd!  Not only that, but that I was being asked to introduce the president of the United States of America!  I was stunned.  I'm not sure where my feet were, but somehow they fell into place beneath me and took me back into the theater where the film was still in progress.  (Fortunately, Michael, who was serving as my techie had rushed into the office to cut off the mike just before the call came, but not before my voice had boomed out into the audience while en route!)  
Photo by Carl Bidleman
Climbed back onto my stool as "Home Front Heroes" drew to a close.  Looked out at those lovely young faces and said, "You won't believe what just happened.  There was a call from Washington, D.C., and ...", in a few sentences blurted out the incredible story.  "You're the first to know, and you'll just have to keep our secret until it hits the news cycle."   I didn't know at the time whether the news should be shared.  I simply could not have continued my talk with those words crowding out everything else.  They had to be voiced.  Surprisingly, after taking a few quieting breaths, I was able to pick up the next few sentences of my presentation, and allow the excitement to be quelled until the
work was done.  Time enough later to go out to the water's edge to stand quietly to let it all in.

As the kids took leave (after the usual round of picture-taking) I realized that those years between us made us miles apart, but that our humanity was the equalizer.  I don't think that I'll ever experience such fears again, at least not until the next time.  As a parting gift, each took the time to jot down on small slips of paper, their impressions and gratefulness for the experience.  This was surely planned in advance of their coming.  The notes were thoughtful and sincere -- they left me with more than 50 slips that I will treasure against the dark days.

It was then that the filmmakers (who'd followed me out to the water's edge) told me that they were planning to make the trip to Washington with me -- if the permissions were granted by Homeland Security, and for the first time -- I realized that I was probably the only person who didn't know that this was programmed to happen on this day ... .They'd filmed those moments of my explanation to the students in those words that I shall never be able recall ... but maybe it matters not.

... and maybe it was all for the best.  I could not possibly have endured the painful pleasure of anticipation.

   


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