Monday, December 15, 2008

Guest Gentleman - A Moment in Time

This is the first Guest Gentleman post - where if I receive a particularly good or important piece from someone who's not one of our regular writers I'll be posting it as a Guest Gentleman column. If you feel like you ever have something to contribute, let me know at jschlaf@gmail.com

Today's guest is Joe Musumeci with 'A Moment in Time'

'It is the day after Turkey-day, and my two closest "guy" friends (da boys…) and I head to Gettysburg, PA. This was planned for the Monday before, but I screwed it up. It is a tradition, and one that I have just been invited to join, to play "hooky" from work one day each Fall and take a cycling tour of a Civil War battlefield... but I bobble my calendar and they are kind enough to reschedule for Black Friday. I am happy enough to be far away from any store, and the day turns out to be beautiful, crisp and bright, whereas Monday had been foul as pheasant. So - score one for us.

Part of the reason we choose Gettysburg this year is because the new Visitor's Center is just completed, and the cyclorama (google "gettysburg cyclorama" for the fascinating and utterly American story) has been restored - so that is the largest part of our morning, after meeting for coffee and driving to the town. We watched the excellent film, see the cyclorama, which has a slightly cheese-y, but still stirring, narration and light show now, and then wander through the museum. There are genuinely moving moments: the wall of photos of young men who died that confront you as you leave, a surprisingly understated film voiced by, among others, Morgan Freeman (get it?) and Sam Waterston. A beautiful window with the text of Lincoln's address etched on its surface looks out over an undisturbed field, once covered with the bodies of children. Eric Vogel's song "The Green Fields of France," haunts me all the day long - for the stanza that asks the question "did they know why they died?" seems especially appropriate here.

I should interject two things here: 1) I am a staunch pacifist, and while I have loved (and now love) so deeply that I can imagine killing in the defense of another, I cannot imagine killing in my own, and certainly in no country's. Odd, for one who as a lad was slated to attend the USNA and be a fighter jock, until I learned my vision would limit my ability to realize that dream. People grow. I have friends in Iraq, one on his third eff-ing tour, and I pray daily for their safe return, but while I love and respect them, I cannot support what they do, even in my defense. I have wondered, often, what would get me to pick up a gun and stand a post, and take comfort that I can rarely answer the question. 2) I have been sadly underwhelmed by the recent sweeping election results that seem to signal a mandate for change – and, if the President-elect is to be believed, largely change that I believe in and voted for. But the memory of the Clinton denouement is still sharp for me, and so I have really not paid heed to Mr. Obama as I ought to have, but, rather, snidely adopted the "both your houses" attitude of the professional cynic and held my nose while I voted, afraid to seem naive again.

We ride our bikes, seemingly without end, and Chris and Mike, who are far better and well-read historians and aficianados than I regale me with tales that flesh in my scant knowledge of the three days that arguably turned the tide of this nation. It is an eerie feeling, to stand with a guide book, Matthew Brady's photos of the carnage and the dying before you, and gaze out over the SAME SCENE - for geology only winks at our passing - cleansed of the corpses, and the smell, but perhaps not of the spirit of the fallen on both sides. A quote by Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine, I think, stands out:

"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger..."

So we stand, and climb, we enjoy our camaraderie - the closeness of men that is really the closeness of boys,- and we take endless photos, and talk about our lives and hopes and fears. The path we trod lengthens through the days and the skirmishes of the battle, until we stand upon Little Round Top... I have seen the movie, read the books... but the cannon and the shot, the rough stones of Devil's Den and the Copse of Trees have skinned our knuckles today, and we smell the smells of the field and see the view from the same defilade as those thousands of scared boys, and we are tired, and weary and somehow elated, and I don't know why, I just don't, I don't know why until Michael says:

Well I guess this war is finally over

…and I realize that I am standing on the rock where all these boys died among other things so my friend and professor Scot can be a man and not chattel and we just elected A BLACK PRESIDENT AND I AM CRYING WEEPING AND I KNOW I HOPE THAT IF I WAS HERE BACK THEN I WOULD HAVE PICKED UP A RIFLE AND DIED IF I HAD TO.

And the 145 years between the smoke and the sulphur and today's quiet breeze all coalesce into an idea, for me, of what history is... the slow, glacial persistence of people trying to find a way to be... better. Perhaps, today, we are just a little tiny bit better as people, because those other people all died here all those years ago. I don't want it to be true, I don't want that to be the inevitable cost, the weregild of progress, but perhaps it is. And the sun sets behind the statue, and we are off for Mike's truck in a mad dash for the warmth of the heater and the bike rack and the ride home and we are changed. I hope I am better today than I was the day before that day, and that, on average at least, perhaps, the trend continues.

Lincoln's address is etched on a very plain window, but this time of year the sun slants a golden shaft like a note from Jericho through the words:

"It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom,..."

On the ride home, Michael comments that it was ironic to drive down the Mall, and see workmen erecting the scaffolds that will hold the throngs on Inauguration Day, when MLK Jr. had to face the other way all those years ago - and as a DC native, a part of me would love to be on Pennsylavania Avenue for such an historic event… But, now, I know where I want to be on January 20th.'

3 comments:

Stephen said...

Wow, what an experience. This was pretty.

Daniel said...

I've been to Gettysburg before as well...it's a pretty humbling experience. Especially because it's so calm now, so beautiful, it seems impossible that so many young people could have died there.

B.Graham said...

Somehow I missed this post in the first go-round. Beautifully written, and now I want to go see Gettysburg for myself. Thanks for reposting this, Jason.