Originally posted September 23, 2013
This post is not about skepticism
A number of television or movies I have always considered as having an indelible impact upon my life. Most of them were positive, and one in particular was negative. (I am staring at you Phantom Menace.) These seminal media events are Star Wars (the entire original trilogy), In Search of . . ., Cosmos, Raiders of the Lost Ark The Compleat Beatles,The Day the Universe Changed, and The Civil War: A film by Ken Burns.
The Civil War originally aired on September 23, 2013 on PBS and it really struck a chord with me. For those of you not steeped in in U.S. history the documentary was a 9 episode mini-series aired over five consecutive nights that relayed the tale of the United States War of the Rebellion (popularly known as the Civil War or the War Between the States.) The documentary featured narration over pan and scanned motion pictures of still photography, or video of the current historic sites. This was intercut with interviews of historians discussing aspects of the conflict, or readings from various first person sources. There were no reenactments or dramatizations of events. The overall impact, majesty, and weight of the series was undeniable.
For someone who was a history/Civil War buff and had read all of the local public library's stock of civil war books along with my collection of a dozen or so books the series was a god sent. The original airing of the documentary coincided with the beginning of my college education at Gettysburg College. Myself and two or three friends would camped out in my dorm room watching each of the nights it was broadcast. We were in the same town that where the most famous battle of the war occurred. The episode covering the Battle of Gettysburg contained an image of what was once called Old Dorm (now Pennsylvania Hall) at the time of the battle. I could turn off my old 20" transistor TV in my dorm room make a left turn out of my door walk down the hallway and look out the window and see Pennsylvania Hall. It was fantastic.
I started college thinking I was going to be a political science major, but by the end of the school year I decided to major in history. I cannot say I solely chose history due to the Ken Burns film, but for my entire time as a history major and beyond my mental images of the War of the Rebellion inevitably tracked with the images, pacing, sounds, and soundtrack of the Civil War. Further, as a student over my four years of undergraduate education I was lucky enough to meet various consulting and interviewed historians showcased in the film when they visited the campus to give a lecture or meet with one of our professors. I was even lucky enough to meet Shelby Foote the bearded Southern gentleman historian that became a minor celebrity in the popular culture of the time. (He smelled of cherry pipe tobacco, which was perfect.) I have yet to see a civil war or history documentary to come anywhere close to the Civil War's emotional impact. in part this was due to its originality, and obviously due to Burns' film making talents. I think it was also spurred on by the times. The U.S. in September, 1990 was shipping troops, warships, and aircraft to Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom from Iraqi forces that had recently overrun Kuwait. To an 18 year old who was of selective service age the prospect of a drawn out war seemed to be a very real. The grisly black and white images of death and destruction felt like a foreboding of what might be in store for me and my generation. Looking back it all seems to fit together so well to form a perfect moment in time. I consider myself quite lucky to have been able to experience my particular college and this film at the same time. I was also quite elated when the Gulf War ended in such a lopsided victory, and instead of fighting for my life in a desert foxhole, I could drink cheap beer carefree on weekend nights with my wonderfully goofy friends.
The only other media item, since that time, that may have made such a mark upon me was stumbling upon the Skepticality podcast in 2005. I will try and ignore that crime against my childhood, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.