Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Just before I left for Ellis Island yesterday, the volunteer coordinator e-mailed to tell me that the person I was supposed to train had cancelled for the day. I'd be on my own at the desk, and my tour. Okay, no biggie. Originally I'd agreed to fill the day so this person could come in, but no worries. In fact, I reasoned that it would be better -- I'd have more time to focus on reviewing for my tour.

When I got to the information desk on the island, I noticed that there already appeared to be visitors walking around. I hadn't checked the schedule, but apparently they were running earlier boats in the expectation that there would be more visitors between Christmas and New Years. I'd been wondering what attendance would look like: it was a chilly day, but there are a ton of people in the city on vacation this week, and when you visit New York, the Statue of Liberty is one of the places to go. Tourists aren't going to skip it just because it's cold.

If the day was going to be hectic, at least it was starting out favorably. The first ranger at the desk was very chatty and friendly. She encouraged me to apply for a ranger job and gave me all kinds of helpful hints on making sure the application would get attention during the next hiring cycle. And when the park superintendent came by, she was sure to introduce me. Very nice overall.

I was also surprised by the appearance of another volunteer. While she wasn't on the schedule, some of her friends planned to visit the island and she wanted to show them around. We agreed that I'd handle the morning tour, and she'd grab the afternoon. I was also anticipating that Tracy and Roberta would be coming by, so I bravely offered to take both tours out if they hadn't made it to the island by the time the first one goes out at 11:30.

As more and more people came to the island, our sign up list for the morning tour grew longer and longer. Usually we cut it off at 25 people, but by the time we gathered everyone at the 3D map to start the discussion, 30 people had assembled. Wow. Huge. In a way, I was kind of relieved to do my first tour in front of a large group. There will always be someone who isn't paying attention, but if it's a group of three and two of them are bored, it's a bigger tragedy than if there are two distracted people in a group of 20. Thus I wouldn't take it personally if someone drifted. I quickly found a couple of friendly, engaged faces in the crowd and drew some energy from them when I needed it.

I'd told myself that as long as I remembered the basic flow of the talk, I'd be fine. While the Ferry Building exhibit offers great visual cues, the opening talk isn't quite as intuitive, so I made a couple of notes to refer to to make sure I covered some basic points. For the most part it worked out well, and surprisingly I got a few laughs in as well. And I was able to keep the full tour down to 45 minutes, including the transit time to the exhibit. Not bad, overall.

So I made it through fine, no butterflies, no disasters. Getting back to an earlier post, I think it comes down to doing something that's truer to who I am. I've always hated doing presentations, and following big ones at work I used to report back, "No one died, nothing burned down," but then those talks were usually about something I wasn't so interested in. This time, when I had the chance to tell an compelling story, I wasn't inclined to be so cynical about the outcome.

In the afternoon, Tracy and Roberta arrived about a half hour before the scheduled tour, so the other volunteer offered to take the 2:30 group while I gave my buddies a private tour, both through the restricted area to the Ferry Building, and then through the Registry Building. Once we were back in the museum I felt a little silly hanging with friends in my park volunteer getup, but fortunately nobody tagged along, expecting a tour. Now that would have been interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Medical stuff and the moment of truth

First things first: last Wednesday I saw the breast surgeon for the long-awaited appointment. The whole thing turned out to be very brief -- a check up first from the physician's assistant, and then from the surgeon herself. Of course, neither felt anything, but based on my mammo films, the surgeon is sending me to the breast center at one of the local hospitals to get a stereotactic biopsy. Basically, they use 3-D imaging to find the area in question, and then they guide a wire there to grab the offending item for biopsy. They also leave a marker behind (Kilroy was here, I guess.). How nice. For the first time in my life (outside of dental fillings), I'll have a foreign object planted in me. I guess these things start piling up as you get older. Whatever.

The breast center called today to let me know they got my records/films from the surgeon. They'll review them within the week and call to schedule an appointment. Likely I won't be going in until at least the third week of January. Oh, joy. That gives me plenty of time to call my new insurance carrier to assure I'm covered and all the appropriate paperwork is filed. Ugh.

On a really good health note, Dad is out of rehab and back home. He's healing well and ambling about nicely.

Next: the moment of truth. Earlier today I got an e-mail from the volunteer coordinator from Ellis Island, asking if I can cover another date next week when nobody will be there. Oh, wow. I have the process stuff down pat for the most part, but it would be my first time doing tours without a veteran volunteer there. Well, I've got to get my feet wet sometime, right? I'm sure I'll be fine; as I often told my speechwriting clients, when you're the 'authority,' nobody knows when you've omitted something. And worst case, I can give a brief spiel at the start and then unleash folks on the exhibits set up in the ferry building. They're pretty self-explanatory, though it's admittedly more fun and insightful to get the live narrative.

I just ran through my talk without having to consult notes that much, and it ran just under an hour, so I think I'll be fine with a few more rehearsals. Perhaps I'll even do a dry run or two on the island later this week. I'm not especially concerned about being perfect from the start, as I'll refine the patter over time. I just don't want to sound unprepared, or run over my time. It'll all be fine.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My head is full of history

It's been a busy ten days or so, between two days at Ellis Island, the night tour of the Fort Hancock garrison, and my dad being in the hospital for a knee replacement. Dad's doing fine, now in rehab, and apparently doing much better than the docs and therapists expected. The other day he was marveling at the negative attitudes of the 'old people' there, most of whom are probably younger than he. Thankfully, he's never been a complainer. He'll speak up when something's wrong, but he won't make a mountain out of a molehill.

So... Ellis Island. There's nothing quite like reporting to work at a national monument, especially after driving over the bridge from Liberty State Park. I park in a lot behind the Ferry Building and walk a covered passageway to the Registry Building, and past the National Park Service offices to a smaller office for Save Ellis Island. There's plenty to do before the first visitor ferry arrives: sign in, photocopy handouts, get a walkie-talkie from the NPS interpretation office, and then walk out to the empty first floor of the museum to put out signage and arrange the information desk just so. And then when the visitors arrive, there's generally a stream of people with questions that may or may not be related to the Ferry Building:
  • When's the next ferry to New York? (We have a handy sign to show them.)
  • Where do I find my grandfather's name on the wall? (Outside, behind this building, take those doors over there.)
  • Where's the restroom? (Doors right behind us, to the right.)
  • Where can I look at immigration records? (What years? Between 1892 and 1924, go to the history center through the doors behind us. Before 1892, check CastleGarden.org. After 1924, there's microfilm at the National Archives.)
  • Is there someplace to eat? (Cafe is on the opposite side of the building, but no, you can't bring beverages back into the museum.)
  • The Ellis Island movie in Theater 1 -- what's that about? (Uh, Picasso?)
So far I've met two of the more experienced volunteers, and by the time our day ends at around 4 p.m., we've become fast friends. The mornings tend to be slower than the afternoons, so we've had a good chance to get acquainted before the 11:30 tour. So far I've met two retired grade school principals and a marketing professional who's pretty much in the same boat as I am, career wise. Tremendously helpful and bright, all seem to share a bit of a sarcastic sense of humor; I'll get along fine.

We also work with the rangers to a lesser degree -- there's always at least one behind the larger information desk next to us, available to answer any questions we can't address. Some of them are a real hoot; one the other day was regaling us with stories of her days at Gateway National Recreation Area and strange things that wash ashore at the park's beaches. Another one of the rangers was actually a Save Ellis Island volunteer before getting his job; a veteran of a New York law firm, he said he loves his ranger job (but for the salary) and would never go back.

Already, I can sense that I'm picking up factoids pretty quickly, though I'll need to do some studying. I also need to take a closer look at the Registry Building exhibits; I think I'll be with a ranger for orientation the next time I'm out there, so that should help. One of my cohorts tells me that January will be very quiet (who wants to take a boat through New York Harbor in the dead of winter?), so it will be the perfect time to start doing actual tours. I'll just need to figure a good way to morph the outside part of the discussion to the interior.

So far so good -- I can see I'm really going to like this. At least till the novelty wears off.

And then there was the Garrison tour at Fort Hancock last Friday. As expected, we were part of a small group -- four adults and two kids, plus the Park Historian and a young ranger. Starting at the base theater, we walked along Officers' Row and then back along the enlisted mens' barracks and mess halls, finally looping back to History House for hot cider and cookies. Since it was a small group, it was more of a discussion, including ample editorializing about the state of decay rampant around the fort. Notably, the young ranger was animated about the condition of the officers' houses and the work he and another ranger do to 'keep the floors from turning to pudding from leaks during rain storms.' In its infinite wisdom, the Army had torn off the slate rooves and replaced them with tarpaper shingles two years before handing over the property to the Park Service; those rooves are now beyond their useful lives, with predictable results. Ugh.

I learned a heck of a lot more about the fort, including the location of some long-gone buildings and lighthouses, as well as the background of a huge battery that was in the midst of being built in the 1850s-60s before being deemed obsolete and torn down. While there aren't a lot of prominent "firsts" or "bests" that would distinguish Fort Hancock in the mind of the common person, it's a great representation of coastal defense and served as a fine deterrent to an attack on New York Harbor.

As the rangers noted the lack of recognition and funding for the Fort's restoration, it occurred to me that it might make for a great documentary. New Jersey Network recently ran a fantastic piece on Morristown National Historic Park; I'd heard about it from one of the rangers up there, who was also bemoaning the lack of visitors to that site. Coincidentally, I did some work with the documentary's producer about 10 years ago, and I know he not only feels strongly about New Jersey history, he's fantastic about drawing the best out of a story.

Of course, as government employees, rangers can't go lobbying for funds or contributions for restoration work, so they probably can't be too pushy about public relations projects either. However, that doesn't mean that an interested citizen can't put two and two together and, perhaps, suggest that a documentary filmmaker capture the history inherent in the place, stressing the Jersey angle. If he happens to see the decay, well, let him come to his own conclusions. In any case, if people see the piece, more people get curious and visit and, hopefully, call for change.

So, after a long chat with the historian and the other rangers (including another one who recognized me from our visit last weekend...), the historian gave me his card in case I could get in touch with the producer. I'm working on a pitch right now, and hoping he'll remember working with me so he'll take the idea seriously. (One would hope he'd recall a woman who convinced a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company to stand in the middle of a swamp, but that's another story.).

The big thing for me here is the excitement I felt about the possibilities -- and seeing where my skills and experience can do some good. All of that corporate promotional stuff I suffered through has to have some sort of meaning and positive outcome. In my corporate career, I often wondered if I could ever be an effective advocate for a client without feeling like a total flack -- whether I'd ever be able to be less than cynical about what I was representing. Could I be passionate about advocating for the construction of a new office building, or what a great employer a given company is? It all seemed really fake, and it's hard for me to be sincere about stuff that won't make a positive and lasting impact. This kind of stuff -- preserving history, telling the stories of seemingly small but meaningful people and places -- can have impact.

There's a germ of a full-time job in all of it. Again, though: the challenge comes in finding a way to make a living while doing it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Approaching the first tour

Tomorrow is my first volunteer day at Ellis Island. I'll be there with an experienced guide, plus another new volunteer. It's funny how much this is feeling like the first day of school -- I'm all about the details of where I report, how I present myself, whether I'll like the people I have to be with, and whether I know enough yet. I know the expectations are low on the part of the EI people, and that I don't need to be an expert on day one, but there's still a twinge of uncertainty. I guess I'd have to be worried if there weren't one.

The other day I had a little bit of a dry run tour with a friend who'd never been to Sandy Hook. He'd seen my photos from an insider's tour I'd taken a few weeks ago and was interested in learning more about Fort Hancock, particularly the gun batteries. I drove us around to the Nike base, Officers' Row, and then over to Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck at the tip of the hook, realizing that there was a lot more I wanted to convey that I didn't know. Not that I see myself giving tours of Fort Hancock, but I discovered that there's a big difference between knowing the information and sharing it with others: what you absorb from guides is often just a fraction of what they've told you.

It was really proven out to me when we dropped by Battery Gunnison for what I thought would be a quick stop to see the restored and reinstalled 6-inch guns. A member of the Army Ground Forces Association, the World War II reenactors who are restoring Gunnison, happened to be there to pick something up. As he unlocked the gates to the battery's interior, he welcomed us in for a quick tour. "Quick" became about an hour as he showed us the magazine, explained the reasoning for the type of artillery stationed there, and how it worked. Seeing our interest, he also brought us into the restored plotting room where Army personnel tracked incoming ships and calculated the appropriate aim for the guns based on information from spotters stationed around the fort and in the Highlands. (My learning: today's Army personnel should thank their lucky stars for radar and computers.) This guy clearly knows his stuff and loves sharing his knowledge, but don't ask me to repeat half of what he told us.

So... the lesson is that you've got to do your homework, because what you retain from hearing others is likely just a percentage of what they've told you. A script outline is really, really important. And the guide needs to stay vigilant in gauging the audience's reactions, and be willing to adjust to meet their expectations and interests. It's not as much about what you want to tell them, as what they want to know and learn (SPIN sales training, anyone?).

Besides my volunteer shift tomorrow, we'll be returning to Fort Hancock on Friday evening for a nighttime garrison tour with the park historian. From previous experience, I'm already aware that he can be a bit longwinded, especially when it comes to artillery. Besides learning about the fort, I'll be paying close attention to how he gauges the crowd and how he adjusts to accommodate their input.