I’m working today at the Spotsylvania battlefield, one of the four Civil War battlefields that comprise the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park in central Virginia. I’ll give battlefield tours later today, help visitors with questions, and keep track of visitation with the aid of my new clicker.
The old one, held together by heavy-duty packing tape with string in it, had started to skip. Dependably, it would jump from 35 to 46. As a writer and historian, math might not be my strongest point, but I’m pretty sure that there are some other numbers in there somewhere between 35 and 46. A hand clicker that doesn’t count properly isn’t much good as a clicker.
I broke out the new one from a little, green cube-shaped box this morning. The small sound of fresh cardboard scraping open was almost drown out by the rain smacking down on the exhibit shelter roof and the concrete pad out front. I half-expected the dust of ages to poof out of the box, like a pharaoh’s tomb newly opened and exposed to fresh air for the first time in millennia. Historians, after all, can give almost anything an air of history to it.
The first two people I clicked in where a couple from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on their way home from a beach vacation in North Carolina. Last year, they hit up Chancellorsville on their way home; this year, they wanted to hit up Spotsy and the Wilderness.
I told them that I’m a Pitt alum, so we started chit-chatting about the university and “Da Burg.” I always ask people where they’re from because it’s a good way to initiate conversation, and it’s fun to see how many degrees of Kevin Bacon away I might be from someone’s hometown or place of origin.
I have half a dozen avenues into conversation that way. Someone’s from Ohio? My mother lives there. From Maine? I lived there for many years and my father’s still there. New York? I teach at a university in the western part of the state. Indiana? An old friend of mine is a reporter for one of the TV stations in Indianapolis.
I don’t make the conversation about me—just use the common point of reference as a springboard for interaction. Conversations can go almost anywhere from there.
The next two people, clicks three and four, were a young couple from York, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Hershey, about an hour from York, and the towns share a television market based in Harrisburg.
Click five came from north of Dallas, Texas; my brother lives in Austin.
Clicks 10 and 11 were a father and daughter from Warrenton, Virginia, who’d been bicycling toward Lee’s Last Line when the rain opened up on them. “I guess we got to see this historically accurate weather,” the father told me after he’d loaded their bikes into their black Chevy Tahoe. When the armies clashed around Spotsylvania, the skies opened on May 11, and the sun didn’t reappear until the seventeenth.
“You can tell people you did the hardcore version of the tour,” I laugh. The weather also makes another good connector.
The days this week have been oppressively hot, with heat indexes well about one hundred. This morning’s rain, and the scattered thunderstorms that have rolled through among the clouds, have been a welcome relief even if they, in their own way, discourage battlefield exploration at least as much as the stifling heat did.
After my first hour, I’ve clicked just over dozen people. Some, discouraged by the rain, haven’t even bothered to get out of their cars. Click fifteen, a local law enforcement officer, has come out to jog, so getting wet is part of the plan.
Clicks sixteen through twenty-seven are reenactors from Michigan who portray the 4th Texas Infantry, Company E. They pull up in a five-car caravan and tumble out, worn down from the sultry weather at Manassas’s 150th anniversary reenactment the past few days. “I’m a Texan from Michigan, portraying a Texan, who just got finished fighting Alabamians portrayed by Pennsylvanians in Virginia,” one of them tells me. People are, indeed, from all over.
The federal government loves its numbers, so everyone who passes through gets reduced to a click. At the end of the day, I’ll write the final tally in a binder we keep in the back. There are columns, too, for me to write down the number of people I’ll have on each of my tours today.
Today’s numbers won’t look any different than those from earlier in the week, but I’ll know they were tallied with the new clicker. In my mind, at least, today’s number will have its own freshness.
But most importantly, each number, each click, represents a conversation, an interaction, a connection—a person. My clicker might reduce all those people to numbers, but those people—those clicks—are the very reason I love being out here so much.