Sunday, May 3, 2009

My Career as a Historian - Part Ten

I've recently strayed from adding posts to this series, but I want to get back on track as I figure after this post I will have only two or three more to finish up the series.

The summer of 1998 changed my life in a lot of ways. I had one year left of graduate school, and that would consist of only an internship and writing my thesis. However, I had to find something to do for the summer. The previous summer, my roommate Charlie, his friend Brent, and I had worked for a temp agency. I went there first, looking for something to keep me busy through the summer. My job at the paint store had actually been run through a temp agency, so I was familiar with the process. I went to a different agency when the previous one couldn't find me anything. The new agency set me up with United Carolina Bank (specifically their mortgage division) in Wilmington. UCB had sold their mortgage division to BB&T, and they were in the process of closing down their headquarters in Wilmington, packing up all the files, and sending it all to Greenville, SC. It was a process that would take all summer (and I won't bore you with the details). I was hired first and my supervisor asked if I had any friends that wanted a job, so I pulled in Charlie, and he pulled in Brent. The work was repetitive and somewhat tedious, but very detail oriented. Plus, we were a couple of college guys working in a business that was about to be shut down, so the full-time employees were basically all losing their jobs. However, we brought a breath of fresh air and enthusiasm to that place when they really needed it and it turned out to be a really fun summer.

For the summer of 1998 however, I decided that I needed to try and find something in the history field and get some experience under my belt. I applied for an internship at the Cape Fear Museum in downtown Wilmington, interviewed, but didn't get it. Then I saw an ad for a seasonal position at Fort Fisher State Historic Site. It was called the Mary Holloway Seasonal Interpreter program and was a position designed for college students. I sent in the application and got a call for an interview. I had never even been to Fort Fisher before so I was interested to see what this was all about. I interviewed with Leland Smith, who was the program coordinator and oversaw the seasonal interpreter position. He explained that the job entailed dressing out in a Civil War uniform, giving guided tours and musket demonstrations, and helping out around the gift shop. He offered me the position on the spot and I accepted. Little did I know that this is the position that would launch my career.

As I found out very quickly, a number employees in NC Historic Sites got their start in the Mary Holloway Seasonal Interpreter position (I can think of at least three off the top of my head). I was eager to get started, but I hadn't thought much about the Civil War since I was a kid. I had become more interested in lots of other historical topics and was currently focusing my energies on post-World War II southern industrial development. But, I needed experience and this was going to be it. As soon as I put on the uniform and fired the musket for the first time, I knew this was going to change my mindset. After my training and first time firing a cannon my entire game plan for my life went out the window. Before, I hadn't really been serious about working in the public history field. Sure, I was concentrating in public history, but I still thought I was going to go on for a Ph.D, or at the very least find a job teaching history at a community college. Once I got started at Fort Fisher I loved it, and I could now easily see myself actually working in the public history realm.

Aside from this life changing summer internship, I had also moved into a new apartment. No big deal, right? But this was kind of a big deal. This apartment was much farther away from campus than I had ever lived so there were very few college students in the complex and many young and middle-aged professionals. My roommate, though a college student, was also a Marine Corps officer candidate who went to school and worked 60 hours a week, so his mindset was much different than the typical college kid. Making that move was my first step into the "real world" so to speak. It got me a few steps away from the college campus environment and closer to some of my friends who were no longer in school and were actually working for a living now. That change in mindset was probably very good for me at that point in time.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of working at Fort Fisher was that it completely ruined my focus on my thesis topic. All of a sudden, the only thing I was interested in was the Civil War, particularly in eastern North Carolina. It was very difficult to stay on task and continue working on a thesis project that I had already started and was bound and determined to finish. I remember clearly having a conversation with my thesis advisor, Dr. Shaffer (see mention in a previous post) where she asked me, point blank, what it was I wanted to get out of my thesis. My response was that I wanted to write something that was good enough and professional enough to get me into a Ph.D program. Now, not only was the Ph.D starting to look like a pipe dream, but getting the thesis completed was looking fairly difficult.

While working at Fort Fisher I began scanning the weekly job postings from the Department of Cultural Resources, thinking that I might try to land a full-time job and finish the thesis while starting on my career. I actually did apply and interview for a job at the President James K. Polk State Historic Site but did not get the job. After the seasonal interpreter position at Fort Fisher had run its course, I decided to stay on staff as a regular temporary employee. Aside from working on the weekends, I continued to travel with Leland and other staff members to other historic sites around the area to help with cannon demonstrations. I felt like I had found a niche and I wanted to run with it and see where it would take me.

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