Valley Forge, Pennsylvania -- Considering the turmoil America is in, it has got to be tough to be an Army recruiter like Sgt. Jeff Blessing. He can't lie to potential recruits: the hours can be long, the duty dangerous, and the pay but a pittance. Heat can annihilate you in the summer and you can freeze in the winter. Weapons can be hard to come by and their accuracy even more arduous to obtain.
Still, the sergeant knows he has a fish on the hook in the form of yours truly. I have approached him hesitantly, equal parts and excited and scared. My questions reveal that I've long thought about putting my love of liberty to the test, of defending my country, yet they can not mask the fact that I am for all practical purposes a city slicker. Never been much for sleeping on the ground, missing meals, or firing guns. I'm very athletic but I've got flat feet that make standing still a challenge and I already suffer from a constant ringing in my left ear. I can't even ride a horse.
Sgt. Blessing does have a few things on his side of the ledger, though. There's the spirit of adventure, patriotism, and those beautiful blue uniforms. Ah yes, the ladies do love a man in uniform.
The army man hands me an application. Just sign here, son, he says. We'll take care of you.
I walk away for the moment, afraid of making such a commitment. I tell the sergeant I'll be back. I need to think about it some. Maybe talk to my folks.
Not only will I be leaving home, I'll be stepping back in time -- all the way to the late 1770s. Sgt. Blessing, after all, is seeking men to join the Second Pennsylvania Regiment of The Continental Line -- a nonprofit, educational organization whose mission is to accurately depict American troops during the American Revolution. He and his brother-in-arms Jim Liddle also make ends meet in these uncertain economic times by adding to the ranks of the King's 43rd of Foot. (Don't spread that word 'round these parts. Blessing and Liddle are good men and they don't think the lobster backs are going to prevail in the end anyway.)
I turn my attention to other interests for the remainder of the "The Lock, Stock, and Barrel" Revolutionary War symposium sponsored by The Friends of Valley Forge Park.
All of the lectures stimulate my brain.
Philander Chase probes the mind of George Washington. Chase spent 35 years in the company of our first commander in chief, retiring recently as the editor of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia. Chase may know the general better than any many alive yet even he can't answer one of history's mysteries: Why did Washington suddenly change his penmanship? No one knows.
I sit a spell with Jim Hollister, a National Park Service ranger and education coordinator at Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts. He delivers a riveting presentation examining the age-old riddles of what really happened at both Lexington and Concord. He weaves eye-grabbing photographs and gripping eye-witness accounts into his remarks, which end with me on the edge of my seat using my i-phone to check the price of train tickets to Boston. I later go out to dinner with him and his fiance Emily Murphy, a historian at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and discover they are both sterling personal representatives of the park service. They're good people, as we say back in my parts.
I peek in on Valley Forge in 1778, where Paul Lockhart of Wright State University is recounting the fantastic story of how Prussian immigrant Friedrich de Steuben showed up on Washington's doorstep, convinced him that he could transform his army into a disciplined fighting force, and promptly proved himself worthy of the post. Lockhart's book, "The Drillmaster of Valley Forge" is next on my reading list, though it pains me to think I didn't later ask him to sign a copy for me while he was standing right next to me -- at Valley Forge -- with his book in my hands.
Scribbling notes as has been my occupational and educational hazard for more than 20 years, I struggle to keep up with Thomas McGuire -- author of "Battle of Paoli" and of a book that's the subject at hand this day: His high-octane tour across The Philadelphia Campaign serves as yet another reminder of how much more I still have to learn about the Revolution, a subject that has long been the focus of a great deal of my energy.
I wish the conference could last longer but the clock is ticking on the weekend. I head back to Valley Forge for a very special tour -- a "behind the closed vaults" experience lead by NPS ranger Scott Houting. Most people quickly turn their attention to the authentic muskets, swords and powder horns that are always the eye candy of Revolutionary War exhibits. Behind locked doors, however, my eyes are immediately drawn to something that cranks up my heart rate.
No way, I think.
Yes way. Sitting before me is a letter written in 1777 by Washington's artillery commander, the Boston bookseller turned military genius who also became America's first Secretary of War -- Henry Knox, one of my all-time faves. But this is not just any letter. It is one of the very kinds of letters I have been studying lately for a magazine essay I'm working on. It's a love letter to his wife, Lucy. Of the great many poignant exchanges during the Revolutionary War, few are more touching than the favors traded by this pair.
"I have received my dearest love letter of the 25th ultimo," he begins. "I want words to express the pleasure it gave me."
The sweet sentiment rolls through the course of the missive and endears me yet more to the general and to his wife -- a woman of British parents who made great personal sacrifices to marry and stay loyal to her rebel husband.
I couldn't imagine a more beautiful way to take leave of the Lock, Stock, and Barrel event but I knew there was one thing I still needed to do. I followed the sound of the musket and cannon fire to the top of a hill so that I could shake Blessing's hand and affirm that I will consider his offer; I've just got a lot to think about as joining Washington's men would be a serious commitment of time and money.
The good sergeant, though, has my attention -- and every good Army recruiter knows that is truly half the battle. Especially at Valley Forge, where our troops must persevere if America is to have a chance.