Thursday, February 13, 2014

Day 277 - Attending a Wisconsin State History Roundtable

I have never been to a Wisconsin History Roundtable meeting. In fact, I was completely unaware the over 50 year old Wisconsin History Roundtable organization existed until very recently. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a notice of a meeting for the organization during some “I have never...” research that I became aware of the group and their Wisconsin history preservation efforts. Comprised completely of hobbyists, the organization’s passion and commitment for history immediately impressed me, which caused me to dig a little bit deeper into the content of their gatherings. Eventually, that revealed the organization’s meeting this month would include a professional impersonator detailing the history of famed Civil War nurse Mary Ann Bickerdyke, which offered a second angle for me to gain a new experience. As a result, I immediately marked my calendar to attend the Wisconsin History Roundtable this evening, and I prepared for my second new learning experience in as many days.

Gearing up!
When I arrived at the meeting location at a nearby Radisson hotel conference room, I was surprised to find a relatively small group of people gathered around three large circular dining tables. Fearful I was interrupting an event that I wasn’t necessarily welcome to attend, I quietly made my way into the room and looked over a nearby pamphlet on the organization. In response to my presence, a man rose from one of the nearby tables and promptly greeted me. “Hello there! I’m Rich. Are you here for the roundtable?” he asked with enthusiasm. I confirmed that was the case, which caused the man to smile and offer me a nearby chair. Happy to be accepted so readily, I took a seat as Rich explained the basic premise of the meeting. Brief in his remarks, he was quick to conclude with a simple statement, “You picked a great meeting to attend. Our presenter tonight is one of the best impersonators I have seen.”

Excited by his remarks, I immediately thanked Rich for his willingness to include me in the event. His response was simple but sincere, “We’re happy to have you. Now, get comfortable and I’ll get the meeting going in a few minutes.” With that, Rich turned to the front of the room and make some final preparations to a backdrop of Civil War era furniture and household items before turning to the crowd. After a brief introduction and some reminders about other upcoming events, Rich was quick to get to the core of the night’s event. “This will be quite the evening,” he said looking over the crowd, “Jessica Michna is here to walk us through her presentation ‘Heal the Nation’ as Mary Ann Bickerdyke. So, without further ado let me introduce Mary Ann.”

The introduction
On cue with Rich’s remarks the sounds of Civil War era music began flowing out of two nearby speakers as a woman in historically accurate dress walked through the room entrance and made her way to the front of the room. Once there she turned to the crowd and looked sternly at the faces following her movement. As the music faded her looked turned toward the center of the room and she spoke. In simple terms and a slight accent, she began with an introduction and moved into the beginning of Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s story of rising from a young widow to one of the most prevalent and influential battlefield nurses in human history.

"Mary Ann's" first moments before the crowd
As Jessica pressed further into Mary Ann’s story her character became so believable it was hard to separate the events she described from the woman behind the character. Her depiction of unkempt hospitals at the onset of the war and treating wounded soldiers on the battlefields were so powerful and expressive I could envision the tormenting scenes as she spoke. Her emotion was authentic and her recollection of the order of historic events was baffling. It was impossible not to take something away from each new story she told and to see the brutal reality of the Civil War in a new light. In ties to my previous “I have never...” experience at Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War, the impersonation of Mary Ann Bickerdyke walked through the very real effects of the decisions made by a few men raised to power. The stories showed the country ripping at the seams, and the horrors caused by such madness.

Amazing recreations of an era long since passed

As Jessica continued, the almost unbelievable tales of Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s role in advancing battlefield medicine kept the audience hanging on every detail. Jessica portrayed how these efforts saved the lives of thousands in one of the most brutal wars in history, and how that cause resulted in Mary Ann becoming known as Mother Bickerdyke to soldiers on both sides of the field. “Those boys,” she said, “All of those boys were my boys.”

With the presentation drawing to a close, the final stories of the Civil War’s coming and going rippled through the small audience. Jessica had exposed the reality of the war through Mary Ann Bickerdyke’s eyes, which made it nearly impossible not to have an emotional response to the our mutual experience. Stated plainly, the event was thought provoking, moving, and all too real.  It provided a new perspective on something that, for me, had only been viewed through the eyes of history books and academics before in my life. The perspective provided deep insight on our history, and it made me take a hard look at the life and health I often take for granted in my day-to-day life. If those are the two things I walk away with from today’s new experience, I can easily say it was an experience worth having.

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