Remembrance from within
I was thinking about the visit I made to Shiloh, Tennessee. It was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. I was a little stunned to think it has been nearly 20 years since I was there. Where does the time go?
Then reality set in it's actually been nearly 30 years since I was there with two friends from college, Ray and Alan.
I was older than my friends by about seven years and I had a hitch in the army on my resume by then. I was and had been a conservative-leaning Republican since second-grade by then.
Alan, from Butler, was leftist pinko who voted Democrat.
Ray, from East Brady, had an NRA membership card and an ALCU card in his wallet. His politics were all over the road like a car full of hillbillies leaving a moonshine-fueled hootenanny.
We were mighty good friends. Those kinds of mixed relationships were OK back then.
In the spring of that year it must have been 92 or 93 we decided to head down to New Orleans for the annual convention of the Society of Collegiate Journalists. I had won the SJC's yearly award for sports commentary that year.
(As a side note, the award was for a baseball feature I wrote that imagined Abbott and Costello doing their "Who's On First" routine in 1992. It was the only sports story I ever wrote. I won a national award. I figured I had reached a pinnacle and never wrote another sports story.)
So, there we were, driving to New Orleans in the early days of April. As we crossed Tennessee in a steady, day-long gentle rain, we thought since we were passing that way, we'd stop at two "places of interest."
The first was the Sheriff Buford Pusser Museum (he of "Walking Tall" fame), which was closed that particular day, and the Shiloh National Battlefield.
If I remember correctly, we had missed the anniversary dates of the battle by about a week and the battlefield and surrounding park were mostly void of other people.
In fact, there was only one other car there. It belonged to a family of five a mom, a dad and their three kids.
I don't remember much about dad and the three kids. But I remember the mom. She had one of those big ol' camcorders of the day. The ones that took the full-sized VHS tape.
I had never been to a Civil War battle field before and the rain, the mist and slightly cool temperature had me and my two friends in a somewhat solemn mood as we traipsed around the park learning about the 1862 battle.
We were moving slightly ahead of the family. As we would read the informational markers and study the lay of the land and how the battle unfolded, the family would catch up.
The mom would pose the kids on the benches, or by the rail fence, or by the cannons, or by the low spot in the ground or maybe by the information markers.
She was directing a production, by golly. Some scenes had to be re-shot. She was talking a mile-a-minute, ordering the kids and dad to stand in a certain spot and look off in a certain direction.
I confess, her constant talking distracted from the mood and intruded on the atmosphere of what I thought deserved to be dignified and respectful.
We would move on and the family would catch up.
We ended up down by the Tennessee River, at Pittsburg Landing, where Union reinforcements landed the night of the first day of the battle and would the next day help swing the fighting to a Union victory.
It was there at the landing where the weight of the battle became clearer to me. I felt as if I could see the men coming onto the land. I could almost -- almost imagine the fear of those men.
They were men like me, from distant little places like Clarion County. Like me when I went off to the army, they probably had never been so far away from home.
Battle and death waited for those men at the top of the hill. I've read "Shiloh" means "God's gift," or maybe "peace." In 1862, the men of the North and the South found neither on top of the hill.
I sat by the river for a little while. I was lost in the thoughts of how those men brothers in the human sense attempted to kill each other in the national sense.
I would have been a Union man. I would have been one of those men who had to get up that hill and face the Confederate Army.
I would have been terrified. It's easy to talk brave, talk tough, to claim to be fearless. But living up to it is another story. Those men did it.
The rain fell that April morning on me like it did on them all those years ago. There was a light fog on the river. It was silent
Then it was shattered. There was mom and the kids. "Go stand by the water," she fairly shouted at the kids as she kept her eye on the viewfinder.
The moment was gone.
For years I resented that woman and her kids.
The moment was gone I had been ripped away from the battle, ripped away from those men who fought there.
But over the years, I came to realize maybe it was the way a moment like that should end suddenly. Rudely abrupt. Final.
There won't be the usual Memorial Day ceremonies this coming Monday. Those moments of refection and appreciation -- and for some folks, memories of veterans violently and abruptly ripped away from them will have to be raised from within our own hearts.
I'm blessed to have my Shiloh moment to draw from.
The author is the editor of the CLARION NEWS.