Ryan’s Jet Gas

Sign for Ryan’s Jet Gas at 740 State Street in Watertown, New York. Ryan’s Jet Gas, Inc. was founded in 1930 and has operated at this corner for over 80 years.

The Pasta Man

The Pasta Man neon sign at La Trattoria, 522 Moosic Street in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Voted best Italian Restaurant in the Scranton Times readers choice award.

Second Manassas Battlefield

The Second Manassas battlefield is part of Manassas National Battlefield Park, located north of Manassas in Prince William County, Virginia. Fought between August 28–30, 1862, the Battle of Second Manassas (Second Battle of Bull Run) pitted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia in the American Civil War. The battle resulted in approximately 21,700 total casualties.

The Brawner Farm Interpretive Center is where fighting began on August 28, when Confederate artillery opened up on the Union army’s Iron Brigade as it marched east along the Warrenton Turnpike. Nearby, on Battery Heights, Confederate artillery swept the field on August 30, devastating Union infantry attacking Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in an unfinished railroad cut.

Unlike the First Bull Run battlefield, which is walkable, the Second Manassas battlefield driving tour is 18-miles long, with separate walking trails. Each tour stop has a parking lot or pull off and interpretive markers.

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Illinois State University’s Loyal Librarian

Founded in 1857 and originally a teacher’s college, Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois is currently home to around 23,000 students and faculty, as well as one tenacious ghost. This ghost is said to be that of Angeline V. Milner, or Ange for short, a librarian who remained with her books long after she passed from this world. As head librarian for 37 years, she was so beloved by the school that Illinois State University named its library after her.

Angeline Vernon Milner was born on April 9, 1856 in Bloomington. By all accounts, she seemed to be destined for the work which would become her legacy. According to Charles W. Perry, who assisted the famed librarian for several years and wrote her biography, she learned how to read before she was four-years-old.

Ange began her fated job at the university library on February 1, 1890, and the Normal School Board was so impressed with her skill and dedication that they appointed her as the sole and head librarian in the fall of that same year.

“Aunt Ange,” as the students called her, died in 1928. According to legend, she collapsed while organizing a section of biology books. She was buried in Bloomington’s Evergreen Cemetery, but for whatever reason did not have a headstone until a short time ago. In April 2006, former Governor Rod Blagojevich, along with Mayor Chris Koos of Normal, issued dual proclamations declaring April 10th “Angie Milner Day.”

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Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau

The Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, is the most well-researched battle of the American Civil War. In the 1990s, Noah Andre Trudeau began synthesizing decades of research to produce the first comprehensive book on that battle since The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968). Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (2002) is the result of his effort. It is a sweeping narrative of that three day struggle, which resulted in approximately 48,000 American casualties.

Although Trudeau summarizes the entire campaign from beginning to end, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage is primarily about the battle. It is also not strictly a military history. Like his book The Last Citadel: Petersburg, the author weaves the civilian experience, including townsfolk and journalists, into his narrative. It strikes just the right balance between anecdote and explanation, and never gets bogged down in minutiae.

The book is organized chronologically, which is helpful for keeping track of events across such a large battlefield. Unfortunately, it isn’t consistent. Events on July 3 are broken down practically hour by hour, whereas the entire attack on July 2 is given one section, from 4:10 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. I understand it’s difficult to determine when events occurred with one hundred percent accuracy, but breaking up that six hour period into smaller bits would have been helpful.

Trudeau is unique in arguing Richard S. Ewell, not Henry Heth, was responsible for initiating the Battle of Gettysburg. By mid-afternoon on July 2, Heth had withdrawn his division out of enemy contact in conformity with General Lee’s order. It was Ewell who decided to “come to Heth’s rescue” and bring on a general engagement. I see the merits of this unconventional argument. Trudeau continues to focus on Ewell’s actions, and the bizarre sideshow around Culp’s Hill, an often neglected aspect of the battle.

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The Best War Films Show Both Sides

I recently watched 12 Strong (2018), Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest offering and a fictionalized account of the opening salvo against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The movie was exciting enough, with a fair share of action and intense battle scenes, but it just wasn’t great. After writing my review (to be posted later this month), I started to think about what elements make a great war film.

King Edward I in Braveheart

Nearly every great war film has one thing in common (aside from epic music): they at least attempt to show both sides of the story. Think about Battle of the Bulge (1965), Patton (1970), Braveheart (1995), We Were Soldiers (2002), Gettysburg (1993), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Each of these films involve a conflict between two sides and show the motivations of both sides, to varying degrees. The Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! (about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was actually made by Japanese filmmakers.

Establishing an antagonist with clear, realistic motivations is key to creating a compelling story in a “man against man” conflict. This is especially true in war. In Braveheart, we see both William Wallace and King Edward I as they attempt to defeat each other. No one is confused about whether Edward I is the bad guy. We see him do bad guy things, like throw his son’s lover out a window. But he’s given plenty of screen time to develop his personality and explain his motives.

Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An in We Were Soldiers

In We Were Soldiers, the story switches between the Vietnamese and American points of view. North Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An was portrayed as a capable and worthwhile opponent. Battle of the Bulge, Patton, A Bridge too Far (1977), and even Enemy at the Gates (2001) all portray German officers as equally courageous, brilliant, and daring as the heroes.

In 12 Strong, the antagonist is Mullah Razzan, leader of the Taliban forces, a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. That’s all we ever learn about him. What’s his motivation? Why is he fighting? Why does he think the Taliban can win? No one seems to care, and so neither does the audience. Razzan and the hundreds of faceless Taliban fighters are just paper soldiers to be blown up.

Col. Hessler in Battle of the Bulge

You could argue perhaps the Taliban are too dastardly to be given a more humanized role. But were the Nazis less dastardly? Battle of the Bulge was released 20 years after the end of World War 2. Everyone knew about Nazi atrocities, and Allied propaganda had done a good job of dehumanizing them, yet Col. Hessler is portrayed as a competent and worthy opponent. His background and motivations are clearly established.

There’s something to be said for showing both points of view from a historical perspective as well. These were real people who engaged in a real conflict. Film gives us a unique opportunity to learn more about why men of both sides fought and died, how they perceived the conflict, and what was at stake. That’s what separates a historically-based drama from an action movie where a musclebound hero lays waste to a horde of faceless minions.

Unfortunately, 12 Strong missed an opportunity to show a more accurate, compelling, and nuanced view of early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.

My Favorite Diners in Upstate New York

Last year, I visited diners all over New York, from classic dining cars to more modern establishments. There’s something about the unassuming atmosphere, greasy food, and nostalgia that keeps me coming back. I prefer the classic designs, for obvious reasons. There are plenty of Greek-American restaurants that call themselves diners, but there are only a few originals left. Some of my favorites include Mother’s Cupboard in Syracuse, Center Diner in Peekskill, Lloyd’s Diner in Lowville, and of course Red Robin Diner in Johnson City.

Homestead Restaurant

Found on James Street in Alexandria Bay, New York