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Carl Wernicke: Talking to strangers isn't always easy, but very often worth it

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I tend to be reserved around people I don’t know well. I was astounded to learn, as an adult, that people I had gone to school with thought I was stuck up because I was so quiet around them. In reality, I was just too timid to approach them.

This was also a hindrance as a journalist, which took years to overcome. But the rewards of opening yourself to other people are as numerous as there are people.

Recently my wife and I visited the Shenandoah Valley. We wanted to experience the beautiful scenery, and I was also drawn to its Civil War history. Stonewall Jackson cemented his reputation as a soldier during a brilliant Valley campaign in 1862.

One day as my wife enjoyed a spa day, I took a self-driving tour of two key battle sites, Cross Keys and Port Republic.

Much of the area remains rural and agricultural, with low hills, wooded ridges and creek valleys adorned with fields of corn, hay and sunflowers. Increasingly you see vineyards and wineries.

A local historic group has preserved public access to key spots of the battlefields, installed informational signs and maintains walkways and fences. Well off the main road at a Confederate artillery site I noticed a man intently studying the field. I had peeked inside his truck on my way in, and spotting a stack of hardcover books, I suspected he was a Civil War scholar.

This was informed also by having spent years working with J. Earle Bowden, who did so much to preserve and popularize Pensacola history. I don’t know how to put it precisely, but Earle had a look, a presence, that radiated substance. When I saw this man, whose name is Bill Miller, standing along the fence, grasping the top rail and looking out silently over the long grassy field, I immediately thought of Earle.

I respected his solitude until he came walking past me, and engaged him. And, as it turned out, he was not only a scholar of the war, but of Jackson’s Valley Campaign in particular. In fact, he operates a battlefield guide service called Tour Shenandoah Battlefields.

He asked me enough to realize I knew more than the average tourist, but I quickly confessed that my knowledge was shallow. I’ve read a number of accounts of the Valley Campaign, but memory fades. He said Cross Keys was an underappreciated battle, and asked if I’d like to see one of his favorite spots. I didn’t hesitate.

Follow me, he said, and hopped in his truck. We drove to a long meadow between two low hills, and he regaled me with a deeply knowledgeable and passionate account of a bloody afternoon that saw a poorly organized Union attack crumble into a bloody rout.

We later talked about Pensacola’s war history, which led me to mention a former high school friend, David Ogden, who went on to serve as the historian for Gulf Islands National Seashore at Fort Pickens. “I know that name,” Miller exclaimed. “He was very helpful with research I was doing on a Georgia regiment.”

What were the odds that in the brief moments of a visit to an isolated battlefield deep in rural Virginia that I would encounter someone acquainted with a friend of mine, and who would spontaneously offer to share his unique knowledge?

Miller’s generosity turned my solitary, tourist-level tour into a rewarding experience that offered real insight into the reality of those wartime events.

I can’t thank him enough.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.