The Best of 2011 (Chris Mackowski)

Our final “best of” memory comes from ECW co-founder Chris Mackowski.

“Mackowski, you need an iron,” Logo said to me as I strolled out to meet her for our ride down to the Jackson Shrine. It was my first day in uniform, and I’d be spending it with one of my favorite colleagues at my single-favorite Civil War site.

And, apparently, I needed an iron.

Perhaps I should’ve laid out my uniform the night before. Maybe then I’d have noticed it. I’d had to borrow a shirt from the communal uniform closet because my own shirts had not yet arrived. When I’d gone to the closet to pick out shirts, I tried them on, found that they fit, and took them home to hang in my closet—where I promptly forgot about them until my first day.

It was Saturday, May 28. Logo and I were scheduled to work the Shrine together, and after closing up, we had to rush to Fredericksburg to help with the annual Luminaria event. Logo and I pretty much laugh non-stop when we’re together, so the day promised to be, in her words, “epic.”

I had volunteered at the Shrine for years, had been entrusted with the care of the building while historians gave programs elsewhere on the property, had even given special programs of my own on the Park Service’s behalf. Kris White and I spent many a day at the Shrine together, killing Jackson, refighting the war, and plotting writing projects.

Beyond the intellectual connection I had to the place, I also had a deep personal connection to it. My daughter, Stephanie, had fallen in love with Jackson’s story when she was little, and over the decade and a half since, we’d made dozens of pilgrimages to the Shrine together. It wasn’t just the place where Jackson died, then; it was a place where our father/daughter relationship deepened.

When we got to the Shrine, Logo and I parked behind the hedges and crossed the parking lot. I kicked up the morning dew with my new brown boots. Along the brick walkway, we stopped, and I asked Logo to take my picture. I stood there, arms behind my back, a wide grin pasted across my face, a shadow from the broad rim of my Smokey the Bear hat curving across my forehead. Logo laughed at me for being such a kid, but she was also so pleased to share in my delight. I really was like a kid, and this was Christmas morning.

The day could not have gone better, and I was privileged to have Logo to share it with. She was such a conscientious guardian of the site and the story—exactly the kind of historian we all hope to meet when we visit a park.

The real wrinkles of the day, it turned out, came at the Luminaria that evening, although I was far removed from all of them. I spent the evening along the Sunken Road, telling the story of Martha Innis, a civilian whose home sat along the Confederate lines during the battle, and I showed people the interior of her house. We moved thousands of people through in just a couple short hours.

After, when all the visitors had gone home, all the buildings had been secured, all the goodnights had been said, I walked with two of my other colleagues, Caity Stuart and Beth Parnizca, to the top of the hill so I could finally see the cemetery by candlelight. In all the hubbub of the evening, I’d not had the chance to get a look.

We crested the hill, and I stopped. Thousands upon thousands of luminary candles stretched out in row after row, each candle in a small white papers bag, each one accompanied by a small American flag. The bags glowed softly. Each one held a hush.

A minute, two minutes, passed before I could walk again. I turned to Caity, who was smiling at my awe. I couldn’t even speak, could only raise my eyebrows. She nodded, knowing, and we walked along the crest of the hill, our eyes cast out over the field of candlelight.

When we came down from the hill, my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. I felt the sorrow of the sacrifice these men had made, but my heart also felt full, glad that we could remember them in such a way.

Stephanie, who’d also been helping with the Luminaria and who had been hanging out with some of our other colleagues, met me on my return. I could not have had a better person to share this final moment with, she who’d been so instrumental in my own development as a student of the Civil War. I hugged her, tears welling up in my eyes. “I love you, Sweetpea,” I told her.

Stonewall Jackson had so wanted to be a father and never really had the chance. I revel in fatherhood every chance I get. It was a good way to bring the day full circle.

1 Response to The Best of 2011 (Chris Mackowski)

  1. Chris, I am so glad this day was so epic for you. It really was an awesome day….and yes, you needed an iron! But you looked snazzy nontheless.

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