Rent a car. Drive to Gettysburg. Beautiful drive. Mapquest knows what it's doing. We get there on schedule. Lunch at "The Lincoln Diner", a place Lincoln might have eaten, id he'd made it to the fifties. It's across the street from the train station he arrived at to give his speech, and kitty-corner from the hotel where he spent all night agonizing, "'Four score and seven.' Is that too pretentious?"
We go to the Visitors Center, where we meet our guide, Jim. Jim'a great. If you go to Gettysburg, ask for Jim. He really knows his stuff. And he's particularly patient with stupid questions. That really matters, if you happen to be the kind of person who asks them.
We had perfect weather for the tour. Oh, before I go there, on the way there, we stopped at a designated "Scenic View." There was a sign there that said, "Closed at dusk." I wondered about that. Does the "scenic view" go home?
You see what I mean about stupid questions.
I'll set the picture for you. Gettysburg: tree-studded rolling hills under a cloud-clotted blueish sky. That's it for description. Just think "perfect for a battlefield tour" and you'll have it just right.
The battleground was beautifully maintained. Jim told us they had cut back the trees, so the terrain can look as close as possible to the landscape the soldiers would have encountered during the three-day battle in 1863. They wanted the place to look as much as possible like the place where the whole thing took place. I'm bucking for the Pulitzer for "Opaque Writing."
Okay, I'm stalling here. And for good reason. This is about, you thought you'd feel one way, and you wound up feeling another. And that other way was a little ashamed.
I was really excited about visiting Gettysburg. But when I got there, and I listened to Jim tell the story of what happened there, all its minutest and most devastating detail...
I started to think. And the thinking got heavier later, as I watched this cyclorama, a three hundred and fifty foot painting of the battlefield, illuminated by the sound of recored cannon explosions, accompanied by ear-splitting volleys of simulated ed rifle fire.
What I'm thinking is this:
We've read about battles, including Civil War battles, where fancy people came with picnic baskets, and sat on a hill, partying, as they took in the bloodletting below. What was the ongoing hostilities for them?
There I am, looking down at the exact place where "Pickett's Charge" took place, the precise open field where thousands of Confederate soldiers charged the Northern army, who held the strategically superior higher ground, and the Northerners cut them to pieces, and, though I'm asking these truly intelligent and insightful questions, underneath I'm asking myself, what am I doing there if it's not
Oh, sure, it's less disgusting when they're not actually dying in front of you, but is it really that different? I mean, how would I respond to a soldier who took part if he said, "We came here to fight. What's up with you?"
"I don't know, I just wanted to see where it happened."
"Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself. We sure didn't."
I stood there imagining the carnage. Then I went to the Gift Shop, and I bought a t-shirt.
"Hey, lighten up, Earlo. It was a learning experience."
What did I learn? That war is horrific? I knew that already. That slavery is bad? Please. There was nothing to learn, but some factual details. And that when the Civil War happened, it was better to be in Canada.
We've thought about visiting Normandy, and seeing where D-Day happened. I'm thinking now, maybe I've had enough.
I don't know if that lesson's worth fifty thousand Gettysburg casualties - yes, I do; it's not - but it's all I've got.
Do you think there's any chance of my getting this posting reprinted in the Gettysburg Memorial Battlefield Guidebook?
Here's a dark, "Early" kin of a thought. When I was walking through the cemetary, I thought if I succumbed, my daughter would be able to say, "My Dad died at Gettysburg."