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Field Notes
Ira Block
Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda
Ira Block

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

While working with my friend John Broadwater from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association, he heard about Adrian and Dori Pearsall, a Pennsylvania couple who claimed to have the Merrimack's bell. They bought it at an auction in Rhode Island about 30 years ago. So we went to their home and, sure enough, the bell had the word "Merrimac" across it. The question at that point was if it was real. I got the National Geographic involved, and the research checked out. Then we called the U.S. Navy and after looking into it, they authenticated it as one of the Merrimack's watch bells. Since then the Pearsalls have donated it to the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., where it will go on display in the Navy Museum.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

The first battle between ironclad ships was fought in what is today Northrop Grumman's shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. Now there is a continuum of history because this is where all the Navy's aircraft carriers are built. So to illustrate this point I wanted to photograph the bow being put on the George H. W. Bush carrier. I waited about a year for this to happen and got all the permissions, but when the day actually came there was a torrential rainstorm. That wasn't going to stop the bow from moving, so I had to try and take a good picture shooting right into the downpour. Luckily, I ended up getting it.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I heard the National Civil War Naval Museum in Port Columbus, Georgia, was still firing a rifled Brooke cannon from a Civil War ship. So I went there in the summer when Civil War re-enactors were firing it. But the first time the cannon went off, all I saw was big clouds of smoke. I needed to see a muzzle flash. I don't know a lot about explosives, but I went over and asked one of the guys what they were putting in the charge. He said baking powder. So I said, "Isn't baking powder used to put out grease fires?" Well, that's what was cutting out the muzzle flash. Then I found out that they sometimes use cornmeal, and that made me think about how corn silos explode when too much gas builds up. So I asked them to try the cornmeal—and that gave me my big flash.