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Blog Archive 2006
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Hershey, Pennsylvania
July 29, 2006

We had the best of intentions when it came to planning a REAL vacation, full of thoughts of relaxation, sunny walks near mountain streams, dinner in some Mom-and-Pop place serving up authentic down-home cookin’, nights spent remembering what it’s like to be a couple without the distractions of home, family and work.

So, of course, it turned into a work trip. I guess that’s the way it is when every interesting destination is another opportunity to write it down and share it with readers. Simon already had two commissions, one for a feature on U.S. roller coasters, one a more general ‘historical interest’ piece. The remainder of the trip would be strictly for fun, but again, it never works out that way, does it?

Our first stop was Hershey, Pennsylvania. After a relatively easy all-day drive we arrived at Hotel Hershey, an expansive edifice easily seen from miles away, a prominent hill-top monument to what loads and loads of chocolate can buy. Mr. Hershey was one smart cookie with a taste for success. Although caramel was the sweet of choice in his early days, he gamboled on the idea that chocolate was really where it’s at after noticing children tended to lick the coating off their caramels, pitching the candy itself once the chocolate was gone. Simon and I would sinfully indulge in the Hershey bars given to us at check-in as our breakfast the next day.

There were several weddings at the hotel that night, giving us the chance to critique the brides’ choices in dresses as we made our way down to the pool. We were momentarily distracted by a putting green on our way to the pool, and I would like to say I whupped Simon's behind with my excellent golf technique, but I didn’t. And I won’t say any more about that, if you don’t mind.

With the heat index in the low 100s, the pool was a godsend. We paddled around for an hour, then freshened up for drinks (chocolate martini, anyone?) and dinner. A good night’s sleep was in order, with Hersheypark waiting the next day.

Hersheypark boasts 10 ‘world class’ coasters, which were our main aim for the day. As hotel guests, we were allowed into the park an hour early, but it turned out we may as well have slept in since only one coaster was open. So we did the obvious thing - we rode the classic wooden coaster The Comet four or five times while we waited for the rest of the park to open! Hersheypark’s stand-out coaster, The Great Bear, was down nearly all day, so we made short order of the somewhat tame SooperDooperLooper, the Sidewinder (screaming forward-and-backward through a series of loops, ending in a massive uphill track on either end), Lightning Racer (our favorite wooden coaster) and the bone-jarring, teeth-rattling Wild Cat.

Now, for those of you who have been to Ohio’s Cedar Point park, the Storm Runner at Hersheypark may be a bit tame. But with a 0-72 mph launch in just 2 seconds, a facelift-inducing blast straight up, hang time as you crest the top of the track and a heart-thumping, stomach-raising dive downward before a series of barrel rolls and loops threaten to give you a repeat of that morning’s chocolate bar, it’s not a coaster for sissies. So, of course, we did it twice.

The heat index was nearing 115 degrees inspiring us to make a short day of it. We passed through the only crowded area in the park, with 6 ways to soak not only your shorts, but also the skivvies beneath them, pausing to watch riders on the Roller Soaker as they flew by overhead (in the manner of Pteranodon Flyers at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure), both getting and giving an absolute soaking. Roller Soaker pits 4 riders (two facing forward, two facing backward, with feet dangling) against passers-by on the ground. Riders each control a joystick that allows them to unleash a massive bucket-load of water on the people below, while the people below control water cannons and buttons that shoot off geysers aimed directly at the riders overhead. It’s one great big splash-fest and while we were dying for relief from the heat, we didn’t want to a) queue up for an hour or b) walk around like we’d been in a wet T-shirt contest and come up losers.

The Great Bear was finally up and running as we made our way toward the exit, so we gave it a try and declared it almost up to par with Busch Gardens Tampa's Kumba, but not quite. Still, a fun ride with a good brain-scrambling and the resulting must-have ride photo.

Since Chocolate World was right across the parking lot we dropped in for a free tour, anticipating a free miniature candy bar at the end of the ride. We had been given tickets to the nearby Hershey Museum so we stopped in for a quick tour, then headed back to our car for the short drive down to Gettysburg. Our itinerary for tomorrow had been set up by the Gettysburg CVB and it would be a full day indeed. It will be a 7am wake up, then non-stop until well after 11pm, so be sure to rest well and grab a snack before you read the next blog. It’s bound to be a long one!


And On To Gettysburg! July 30, 2006
Part one

Gettysburg is just under an hour from Hershey, a very pleasant drive after a hot day in the park. Our destination was a charming little place called Cricket House, located just across from one of the entrances to the Battlefield. We had been given directions, of course, but somehow our itinerary had been left on the desk at home and did not make the trip with us. Therefore, we had to go by memory, which, admittedly, was not so good that evening. I'll save you the long drive up and down the street, past the house we were pretty sure was ours, not once but several times. Let's just say that in the end we had the right place, a most delightful two-story guest house with a Victorian style exterior and all the comforts of home inside, including a hot tub out back, a Jacuzzi upstairs and a steam room in the second bathroom. Wowzer!

Our intention was to walk downtown and see some of the shops, but we were so wiped out from the heat we opted for a tepid soak in the Jacuzzi and an early night. Our contact at the Gettysburg CVB had set up the sort of itinerary we normally make for ourselves when in full Brit's Guide research mode, beginning with an Orientation film called Battle in Motion at 8:30am and ending with a Ghost Tour at 9:30pm.

We arrived 15 minutes early at Patriot Point, so had time to walk around a bit and get our bearings. At 8:30am we settled in to watch the movie, which is a new offering in the area being shown in what is otherwise used as a dinner theater. Being so new, there were a few bugs to be worked out, such as a real screen instead of the kind you pull up from a tripod and a real projector instead of the rigged up version that was showing the movie via computer hook-up. The connection failed several times, but we got there in the end and proclaimed it a very worthwhile overview before seeing the Battlefield.

We hustled over to the Visitors Center by 9:45am for our meeting with a Battlefield Guide. We checked in 5 minutes early and were told it would be a full 5 minutes before Paul, our guide, would be out to join us as (in their words) ‘he won't move a muscle until his break is completely over'. Oh dear.

And sure enough, he was just as grouchy and cantankerous as we suspected. This being a car tour where the guide drives you around in your own car, we sat back meekly as he took the wheel and barked out the fact we had 3 choices in tours. Just the Monuments, History, or a Combination of Both. We were most interested in History but also wanted to see the monuments. Like a bull pawing at the ground and snorting out a great huge waft of steam, Paul pulled out of the parking lot and drove to our first stop. But not quite.

We stopped short of any real monuments of merit, instead pausing in front of a minor monument, where we would stay for the next 45 minutes (with my car burning $3.09 per gallon of gas all the while) while Paul gave us a history lesson. Just when I thought I'd lose my ever-lovin' mind, he said, ‘Ok...let's move on.'. So we did. We passed by the monuments I knew were quite interesting, until we stopped again in front of some obscure monument for another half-hour lesson. To make a long story short, we never really saw much and we didn't even get around the full battlefield in the 2 hours we had for the tour, though there were a few moments of excitement (at least for me) when I thought I'd pull my own liver out through my throat just to end the misery if we weren't going to get out of the heat of the back seat and SEE something.

In all fairness, Paul is an absolute wealth of knowledge and did provide an excellent understanding of WHY the battles proceeded the way they did, what the thinking was on the part of each officer as the battle changed and progressed, and he also gave us his own considered opinion of Pickett's Charge, which I will readily admit was quite fascinating. If we had been sitting across the table from him in some authentic-looking pub downtown, quaffing beers while we re-lived the battle it would have been among the most enjoyable of discussions I can remember having in a long time. Taken from the back seat of a very hot car while 2 hours worth of expensive gas were being burned as we sat in idle, it was not quite what I had hoped for, but I will grudgingly say it was still an interesting tour.

Speaking of authentic pubs, we were meeting Stacey, our CVB contact, for lunch at Farnsworth Tavern, an 1810 Federal-style building with bullet holes riddled across the side and a peanut soup well worth seeking out. I didn't know it was supposed to be haunted until we walked in and sat down. At that point I was SURE it was haunted. You could just feel it, but not in a bad way. Lunch was very good, but with a heat index around 115 again I opted for a chicken salad stuffed tomato and lots of water.

Just a few doors down we found our next stop, Shriver House. There are so many locations dedicated to the war and the soldier's perspective that the civilian experience is sometimes lost or blurred. Shriver House takes you through the 3 day battle from the viewpoint of a woman and her two daughters, left alone in their home when Father went off to fight. The house is fitted out as it would have been while they were living there, with the somber addition of rifles, bedrolls and various soldier paraphernalia in the attic, which is where a handful of soldiers fought once the women had fled to another home just out of town when the battle raged down their street. The soldiers knocked out some of the bricks in two locations in the attic walls so as to have a clean shot down the street.

Mother and her two girls (along with the neighbor girl of 15) were at the farm owned by her parents, hoping to avoid the battle. However, wounded and dying soldiers soon covered the lawn and took up every space in the home there too, so the women were pressed into service as nurses. They eventually returned home safely (though Father would not return. He was killed during a later battle) and the neighbor girl would go on to write a book about their experience.

As an interesting aside, there was a recent study being done to test how accurate a new technique was that was designed to show bloodstains even after the blood had been cleaned up. The crew doing the testing came to Shriver House and tested the floors and walls in the upstairs attic. Sure enough, though it had been cleaned up right after the battle, the tell-tale sign of a dead or wounded sniper showed in a great puddle on the floor and spatter marks on the wall. If you look a the picture the owners of Shriver House were given by the crew, you can also see what appears to be a bloody boot print where another soldier must have walked across his fallen comrade's path.

Remember I said it was a long day? We still have 4 more locations to visit, but you've done well if you've stuck with me this far. I'll post a second half separately so it doesn't seem like you're reading a novel all in one go.

July 30, 2006

We spent a little longer at Shriver House than we expected when the owner came out to greet us (‘Are you the writers?'). She showed us a series of pictures taken during the restoration phase of the house, which had been left empty (its saving grace) due to the fact the man who owned it before it became a museum was not one to part with his belongings. Apparently he also had every car he'd ever owned still sitting on his back lawn at the time he passed away, so it was a bit of a wait before Shriver House would be purchased and renovated. All the while we were talking, a very naughty kitten was fixin' to do what kittens do on the nice clean rug, so the homeowner had to stop and coax Kitty upstairs to find the litter box. We had to run a bit to make our next meeting, which was a downtown walking tour with a guide in period costume.

I'll make this next part as short as possible. We'd been told all day how it's not uncommon to see people walking around in full Civil War garb, just for the fun of it. Remember that, and the fact we were told we'd be meeting a woman named Pat who would be in period dress and carrying a basket. When we pulled up to the meeting point we immediately took note of the whiskered old gentleman in full woolen uniform, a Union Soldier come to life. How delightful to see this grizzled old man living out a time he could almost but not quite remember! We smiled at him as we took a seat on a bench, since Pat had not yet arrived. An hour later we placed a frantic call to Stacey, our CVB girl, who placed a frantic call to Pat, who turned up in full period dress, carrying a basket, just as we figured out the old Union Soldier was sent in her stead to guide us around the downtown. Apologies all around, relief on our part and on Pat's part, as she thought something horrid must have happened to John (the soldier) since he was never late when he was sent to guide people in Pat's absence. Pat went back home to her gardening and we started off on our tour with John.

It turned out he was heartier than anyone could imagine, walking around in 113 degree heat in full woolen uniform, telling us all about the historic buildings downtown, especially as they related to his own family. We could not have chosen a more delightful guide or a better way to suffer the heat while enjoying a good tale. John has written several small books telling the stories his family passed down, having had two relatives who were doctors in Gettysburg during the battle. He told us of one doctor's son, a boy of only 13, who made his way over to the church across the street from his home after it had been pressed into service (as all churches were) as makeshift hospitals. The young man spend every day of the battle and the weeks the followed tending to the wounded and the dying, making their final moments or their convalescence as easy as possible. Simon and I thought of our own boys (mine being 13, too), and what that must have been like for a lad of that age to see so much suffering while giving so much comfort. A drink of water for a dying man at the hand of a young boy must have been the closest thing to a mothers loving touch as could be imagined under such hellish circumstances. We began to feel the pull of Gettysburg, not only from the standpoint of bravery in battle but also from the perspective of the townspeople who spent the next several months saving lives and burying the dead. By the end of the tour we felt like family, as if John had taken us into his home and given us the gift of his history. Find him if you go to Gettysburg and ask him to tell you his story. I truly regret we did not have our picture taken with him, a precious opportunity missed.

When Stacey offered to set up our itinerary we expected she'd organize a few of the obvious things in the area, but were surprised and delighted with our next stop. Simon has always had access to the fine wines of Europe, Australia and Africa and we also enjoy a good California wine now and then, so it was with great interest that we learned there were several wineries in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Our next stop took us to a small tasting room in the downtown area where we sampled the likes of Tears of Gettysburg, Rebel Red, Redd Buttler (yes, Redd Butler) and (wait for it....) Sweet Scarlett. Adams Country Winery is located just outside of town and was a bit of a surprise, with a few of the wines actually being not only drinkable but also pleasant. I've been to wineries in Michigan and Washington DC and would rather water the lawn with their wines than drink them. One wine I had in Michigan was so bad I actually added sugar to it, hoping it would improve to the point of being able to pass down my throat, but it only made it worse, if that's even possible.

We sipped at the wine offerings, but not too much since we had been given a dinner appointment at one of the area's finest Inns. We freshened up back at Cricket House (it was 113 degrees, remember, and we were getting a bit skanky), then made our way out of town to a small inn called Herr Tavern and Publick House. Herr Tavern has a fascinating history, having been the site of a counterfeiting operation, a stop along the Underground Railroad and, along with the churches in the area, a hospital during the Civil War. Some say it was also a brothel at one point, but if that's the case, the walls aren't talking. They are, however, talking when it comes to the Tavern's use as a hospital. You can honestly feel the soldier's agony in that building, I kid you not, and you can imagine the sawed off limbs being thrown out the window onto a cart piled high with its gruesome cargo.

In spite of this rather unappetizing fact, Herr Tavern was one of the finest meals we have had in a very long time. We moaned and rolled our eyes as we ate, shamefully cleaning our plates (well, almost) and downing most of the bottle of wine they graciously offered us when we arrived. Simon and our ‘water boy' made a game of it, with Simon hiding his water glass in various locations around the dining room (we were alone in a small alcove room, at least to begin with), but the waiter was too good. He barely had to look before he spotted his prey. I guess you get a sixth-sense when you serve that much water, and we were sucking it down like it was...well...water!

Full of food, wine and water, we toured the Inn portion of the building, then had to make a dash for it to be on time for our 9:30pm Ghost Tour. This is where things took a turn for the strange. I don't know what I expected, but this sort of tour is right up my street. We joined a moderate-sized group, led by a costumed guide who, by all accounts, knows some of the ghosts by name. Our first stop was in a field where a ghost she says is named George lives. She described how he likes to play with women's hair, how he often walks up behind her or the other guests and puts a hand lightly on their shoulder, and how there are several other ghosts in the area, each with its own favorite ‘haunting spot'. She told us George had been very active recently and that we had a good chance of ‘seeing' him that night.

However, (surprise!) we didn't see him, nor did we see any of his field-dwelling companions. Before we left the area our guide said, "I wonder if he's passed over?" Someone in the crowd said, "No." Then she said, "Is he here now?" and again, the answer ‘No'. Suddenly, I realized everyone was looking at me. The guide was also looking at me and said, "Is he mad at me?" That's when I realized I'd been the one saying No. How embarrassing! I got all flustered and said "I have no idea if he's mad at you", but I really wanted to crawl under a rock.

The guide walked next to me for a while, asking me about ‘special talents' and telling me about her daughter, who is sensitive to these things but is terrified by them, too. We had a very pleasant chat until we reached the next stop, when she began telling us the area had an underground stream that, during the war, had been an above ground stream. Bodies that had fallen into the stream during battle had washed downstream, ending in a log-jam of sorts right on that very spot as they clogged up the water trying to pass under a bridge that had been there at the time. She told us one man's corpse had so much pressure on it from the pile up that his teeth stuck in the wood frame of the bridge when they pulled him out. Cool!!

The stream has been paved over but, according to our guide, the ghosts of the soldiers still haunt the underground area. There happens to be a grate in the pavement and, as legend has it, if you stand on the grate you'll feel soldier's hands grasping your ankles, trying to pull themselves out of the water. (Ooooh, spooky!) Simon stood on the grate, but the soldiers must have been busy doing other things. Either that, or they'd figured out the tourists weren't going to be any help at all and they'd gone down river on their own, looking for greener pastures.

There were several other convenient stops that all looked like convincing locations for ghosts (an old barn where a crazy soldier is said to live in the basement and the ghost of a young girl, hung by her father when he found out she was pregnant, is supposed to dwell) but the truth is, other than the area where George was supposed to be, there really was no sense of otherworldly happenings. Still, it was fun to hear ghost stories in the dark and to see the tourists snapping pictures of empty windows, hidden cellars and the one thing that did show up that night....a cannon ball from the Civil War that was still stuck in the upper story of a cranky old woman's house. We were told we could take pictures but to be quiet there as the woman was not at all happy to have ghost seekers scrounging around her porch every night during high season.

It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, hotter than the blazes of hell but full of the sort of stories Simon and I love to hear. Stories of valor, stories of fear and bravery, stories of people overcoming the greatest of challenges on their way to a whole new country. I'm a flag waver and proud of it, and Gettysburg made this patriot's heart beat just a little bit faster, with pride in those who made it all happen.

Copyright Simon and Susan Veness, 2014
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