Tourism's relentless march on Gettysburg

July 30, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd

AS A PARENT, it's my job to drag the kids off each summer to various historical sites they have absolutely no desire to see.

With this in mind, we spent a day recently at the famous Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa. (Motto: "More cheesy gift shops than Saigon in '67!")

As we discovered, the best way to prepare for a trip to Gettysburg is by purchasing a small, tasteful-looking ski mask and automatic weapon, and then robbing a bank.

Oh, yeah, it's kind of pricey, depending on exactly what you want to do.

For instance, if you just want to sit in your car in the parking lot with the windows rolled up until you pass out from the heat, it'll probably cost you only 50 or 60 bucks.

But if you want to tour the various battlefields and museums and the Observation Tower that looms like a giant crane over the countryside, you'll want to oil up that Visa card. Because that baby's going to get a workout.

Still, we learned an awful lot about the Battle of Gettysburg, including the fact that even when the fighting was at its fiercest that broiling summer of 1863, soldiers from both the Union and Confederate forces could take a break with a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese value meal.

At least that's the impression you get when you walk a couple of hundred yards from the battlefield and there's a McDonald's, Hardees, KFC and Friendly's.

There's also the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge -- "Free cable!" -- where, I'm guessing, Union troops under Gen. George Meade cleaned their guns and bayonets while watching "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" on HBO.

Is it me, or does all this detract just a tad from the authenticity of the place?

Would it have killed them to build the fast-food joints and the motels a few miles away, so that as you try to envision the bloody Confederate attack on Cemetery Ridge, you're not thinking: "Hmmm, the Colonel's Crispy Strips for $1.99? That's not a bad deal!"

I don't know -- maybe that's too much to ask for these days. Hell, they probably have a Blockbuster Video on Omaha Beach now.

During our visit, there were lots of men and women walking around Gettysburg in Civil War-era dress, re-creating Union camp sites, rebel field hospitals and the like.

But at least these actors weren't as annoying as the ones in historic Williamsburg, Va., where my wife and I dragged the kids last summer.

At one point in Williamsburg, I asked a guy in period costume where the men's room was and he answered me in this goofy, faux-18th century dialect:

"Yonder lies the apothecary shop of Master Robert, an honorable man to whom I am apprenticed for three years. It is said there are 'facilities' thereabouts, although one may ask at the village silversmith to be certain."

Ohhh-kay, pal. Fine, whatever.

Look, I'm all for staying "in character." But we're not making a Hollywood epic here. Just my luck: The one guy I ask for directions thinks he's De Niro.

In Gettysburg, though, when you asked the actors for directions, they got right down to business.

"Men's room? Go down to that gift shop, make a right, and it's three more gifts shops past that, on your left."

Actually, just one week before our visit, tens of thousands of re-enactors had descended on Gettysburg to re-create the famous three-day battle.

We learned that some of these men, known as "hard-cores," are so fanatical about authenticity that they wear only hand-made uniforms, eat only foods available during the 1860s, and even sleep together in their encampments the way Civil War soldiers did, massed together in the back-to- back position known as "spooning."

Let me just say, for the record, that there are not enough drugs on the planet to make me sleep in the "spoon" position with a bunch of hairy guys who haven't taken a shower in weeks.

We ended our day in Gettysburg with a tour of the battlefield, given by a pleasant volunteer named Ed.

The tour lasted two hours, which, we discovered, was about an hour too long.

Even though Ed was a fountain of information, pretty soon all the battles seemed to blend together.

I never thought I'd say this, but you hear one story about slaughter and devastation and men reeling from grapefruit-sized holes in their chests, you've pretty much heard 'em all.

Still, as we left the battlefield, there was plenty to think about.

And the one thought that kept running through my mind was: This time next year, there could be an Outback Steak House here.

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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