Standing in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City are the members of the 2013 Fillmore Central senior class. The fountain was built in 1842.  PHOTO COURTESY OF GERRI  NEILSEN/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
Standing in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City are the members of the 2013 Fillmore Central senior class. The fountain was built in 1842. PHOTO COURTESY OF GERRI NEILSEN/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
"It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The seniors from Fillmore Central High School were already feeling this way about their class trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City when they woke up on April 10. Five days in and they were one day away from leaving D.C. for the Big Apple.

The final day in the nation's capital started off with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Like Gettysburg, students found themselves emotionally struck by the mood in the cemetery.

Senior Mitch Gibson considered it one of the more meaningful places the class visited. "It's full of our (nation's) sacrifices. It was cool to see cemetery sections of all American wars in there," he shared.

Classmate Brandon Breitsprecher said it moved him as well. Breitsprecher is a class officer along with Cody Hendrickson, Matt Guttormson and Nick Ebner. These four were privileged with the opportunity to take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

While the rest of the class waited in the amphitheater behind the tomb, the officers presented themselves to the director of the U.S. Army Third "Old Guard" Regiment, who guard the tomb.

Having heard that the procedure was very precise and strict, Guttormson said he was nervous about it. However, once they received their directions and got in place for the ceremony, one of the soldiers helped them feel at ease. "He looked serious, but he talked normal to us," shared Hendrickson.

Their classmates had witnessed the changing of the 24-hour guard and then watched as their officers marched down the stairs leading toward the tomb and presented their wreath. Guttormson and Ebner stepped forward and put the wreath on a stand and then all stood at attention as "Taps" was played.

"We agreed that it gave all four of us chills. The fact that we were honoring the unknown soldiers who died was a big honor," shared Hendrickson and Guttormson. Breitsprecher said he felt honored as well.

Following the conclusion of their time spent touring Arlington, the group headed over to the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial. Under a blazing sun, they heard the stories of the five Marines and one Navy corpsman who were a part of the iconic flag-raising image on Mount Suribachi. Some self-exploration time at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Art, and the American Indian Museum was allowed before they walked to the World War Two Memorial.

Capping off their final night in D.C., everyone dressed up for dinner and a show. Following a class trip tradition, they ate at Phillips Flagship Seafood Restaurant and proceeded to the famous Ford's Theatre. They watched the Broadway musical "Hello Dolly" in the same theater where President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth.

The following morning, the senior class received a surprise notice that they would not be traveling by bus to New York City. Instead, they would be taking the Amtrak train system. For many, it was the first time they had been on a train. The group was just large enough to fill a car themselves.

"It was real nice. On the train they got to go through cities that we normally just skirt on the bus," shared senior class advisor Joe Stevens.

They pulled into Pennsylvania Station in New York City overflowing with an eagerness to see the city. "I think there is more anticipation to see New York City because you study D.C. and see many pictures of it as you grow up," shared Stevens.

Soon after arriving, everyone was set loose in Times Square and left to make their own judgments about the city and its people.

"Everyone is in a rush there," one student recalled.

Most marveled at the stark differences between the countryside and the city. Everything from the skyscrapers to smells overwhelmed the students.

"It blew my mind," said Chris Collett.

"People are begging for business and trying to sell you stuff all the time," said Hendrickson.

Some students felt like the people hated the tourists who took up too much sidewalk space, and others felt like they were welcomed.

Senior Alex Johnson said he noted how a lot of people seemed to be in their own world and focused on their own thing.

Kerri Dornink said she enjoyed how one can be anonymous in a city like New York City and found it interesting and almost disgusting how everyone marveled at the large population. Students also differed on how they enjoyed the city environment.

Gwen Petrillo said the city isn't so much a place to visit for her, but a place to live someday.

Guttormson said he learned that he preferred small towns even though seeing the city was a good experience. "I felt happy to be back in Minnesota," he said.

The significant police presence in Manhattan was also noted.

That first evening in the city, the students took a cruise around Manhattan Island and were able to pass by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. They didn't stop since those sites have been closed since Hurricane Sandy went through the city. As they were finishing up their tour, the group was able to see the city come alive with lights.

The following day was rainy and cold, but the group still went out on a walking tour of lower Manhattan. The highlight of the tour was the 9/11 Memorial, which was later described as both somber and incredible.

Senior class advisor Aaron Mensink said it was important to keep in mind that the memorial was also a gravesite for people who still haven't been found.

Directly across the street from the memorial was the new One World Trade Center building, which was near completion when the seniors visited. They were unable to see the top of the building since it was cloudy. After leaving the World Trade Complex, the group went through Chinatown. The day ended with the seniors seeing the Blue Man Group perform at the Astor Place Theatre.

The final full day in New York City entailed a guided bus tour of Manhattan Island with a stop at New York's Central Park. Time was given to the students for self-exploration around Rockefeller Center before they loaded the bus one last time before turning west and heading back to Harmony.

Everyone arrived back on April 14 around 11 a.m. with more memories than they could handle at one time.

Breitsprecher said they didn't get enough time to soak everything in.

For chaperone Ashley Case, who went as a student in 2005, she was able to soak in more of the moments. She did not experience New York, but she said she learned a lot more at places like Gettysburg. "I talked to the kids on the bus ride and said it will be an experience they'll never get to do again with all their classmates," she said.

Parent chaperone Bonnie Tammel got to experience the trip through the eyes of her son, Jake. She mentioned the greatest part of the trip was seeing the kids' genuine interest and desire to learn. "It's great, as a parent, to watch them open their eyes to the history," she shared.

Everyone got to experience something new, including Stevens. He and the head tour guide, Carlyn Kraabel rode in a New York City cab on their way to a destination. "It met every stereotype and I hope to never have to ride in a cab again," Stevens stated.

The weather was agreeable for most of the trip with temperatures reaching into the 80s and 90s in Washington, D.C. It was cooler in New York City and by the time the seniors got home, it was raining, sleeting and snowing.

Hendrickson said he was impressed at how many local connections back home there were with the stories relating to important historical events.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of the trip was the time classmates were able to spend with each other. Several seniors shared that they had struck up friendships with classmates who they had thought didn't have much in common with them.

Chaperones and class advisors noted how the camaraderie developed on the trip. Stevens has been taking the trip as a senior class advisor for 20 years. "I didn't intend to do this for that number of years, but it's given back even more to me," he shared.

Stevens plans on retiring from his position, which means the next few trips will be his last. "I never had a student I didn't like," he said, adding that each student throughout the years has contributed something to the quality of the trip.

Considering the tradition that has been built at Fillmore Central with the class trip, it is likely that future senior classes will have the opportunity to experience first-hand many of the places that have enriched the historical perspective of high-school students.