four score and so many tears
it wasn’t on our way. but we steered there anyway.
a red-lined triangle on the roadmap was all that it took. that and what turned into a few hours’ drive through the mountains, in the rain, with no shoulder to the right, and big trucks barreling by on the left.
and there was that boy in the back seat, after all, the boy who’d learned all the words, who’d traced the story of the president who’d ended slavery, and who somehow had decided that to settle his own hard-thumping heart, he’d needed to slip the soles of his shoes into the very same spot on the crest of the hill in the midst of the half-circles of square white stones, unmarked graves, state-by-state in the somberest of roll calls, where the words first were bellowed over the stretched-out limbs of the forever-sleeping soldiers.
it was the gettysburg address, three short paragraphs really, that he’d learned at school, read out loud in assembly, recited one night at dinner, delightfully reading “deducted” instead of “dedicated” each time he came to that particular mix of d’s and c’s and t’s that, after all, is so indistinguishable to an orator of a mere seven years.
and so, since we were driving to washington anyway, he figured, why not swing up into pennsylvania, that breadloaf-shaped chunk in the jigsaw puzzle, not far from the d,c, triangle, and drive to the little town where the great speech was etched into the national memory.
it wasn’t enough, on that chilly cold afternoon, to merely drive through the town, stand in some parking lot, marked visitor center, and rip out the sheet with the words.
we stopped for a map, and directions. we wiggled our way through farm fields once soaked in blood. we parked near the crest of a hill, walked past long stone fences, crossed a country road, and walked and walked until we couldn’t get closer to where ol’ abe’s shoes must have fallen, stood firm against the hard cold soils that had seen and heard too much, and now at last were being laid to rest and peace and the broadcloth of history.
the little boy, one who most of the time spouts numbers and news about ballfields and the players who play there, somehow had been transfixed by these words and this speech and this spot on the map.
there was no steering him elsewhere. no approximation of history.
he’d decided it had to be just as it was. had to be him reading the words out loud, to the cold winds, and the three grownups (his big brother, after all, is nearly a grownup) who love him so very much, who stood somewhat astonished at this whole insistence on honoring history.
he’d carried along a parchment, written in script, signed “Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863,” but he couldn’t make out the 19th-century swirls and dips and swoops of soot-black ink.
so, when we’d stopped for the map, he’d handily gotten the words typed-out, more to his liking, more like the pages of books he now reads by the hour, this boy who not long ago struggled with words in any old form.
so there we were at the top of the hill, just in front of the great marble monument, with the plaque marking the spot.
the boy, seven and change, settled in, maybe as lincoln had; pulled the words from his pocket, unfolded the ridges, began.
“four score,” he started, of course. and then carried on. the words coming in that familiar cadence and rhythm we all know, all of us who in some schoolroom somewhere pored over the civil war pages, tried our hand at memorizing, maybe for the very first time, with this particular passage.
somewhere, though, near the part where lincoln wrote that “we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground,” the words slowed to nearly a halt.
we looked in, each of us, zeroed our eyes on his face, trying to read the root of the slowed-down reading.
only then, as the next few words sputtered, did i see what i thought looked like a tear. and then another and another.
he was crying and reading, the boy who would not let the tears stop the cadence, the moment, not till the end when we all crushed him, a tangle of arms, cheeks, tears.
“sweetheart what is it?” i asked, not sure if it was that the hard words had netted his courage, swallowed his sense of the moment, or whether it was the sad truth of the story, the soldiers buried in half moons and lines all around.
“it’s the soldiers.” he managed to choke out in short few syllables, before burying his face in my sleeve.
we all stood in this knot for a minute or two. i knew that i, for one, was etching the moment into my mind, into my picture of this boy who i’d birthed, this boy who not often was thought of as the one with his pulse in sync with the poetry of a world marred by bloodshed and tombstones.
sometimes on a cold afternoon, at the crest of history, you discover the script that you’ve dotted and crossed in your head, the script of your very own child, it’s not what you thought it was.
and you stand there, wiping back tears, his and your own. and all of a sudden you understand a whole new chapter’s been written.
one you will never forget.
nothing earth-shattering here. just a page in the scrapbook, titled “our road trip to washington,” it’s been a long long time since we went away for spring break. all the cats in the ‘hood bore a bit of a shock since over the years we’ve evolved into the de facto cat sitters. as always, it’s splendid to be home and back at the keyboard (and washing machine, and the checkout line at the grocery), but, of all years, this was a fine one to brush against the white house gate. criss-crossing the country we listened to obama on tape, both books, and to hear the depth of the man–and the wisdom he piles into but one clause of one sentence, let alone 10 hours of books-on-tape–well, it made the 1,500-some miles whiz by in what seemed like mere minutes.
now, back to the laundry.
Gettysburg. My husband and I had a dear, dear friend who once upon a time had been a Protestant minister. He felt a deep spiritual connection to Gettysburg and he went there each year with a group of friends who all were ministers or had been at one time. It was a spiritual retreat of sorts. They all knew their Civil War history, but it was more than that. They hiked that battlefield over and over again. They felt deeply connected to humanity there. Just like your little one, they felt deeply for the soldiers. And so when Tim died so unexpectedly about 7 years ago now, his wife carried his ashes to Gettysburg and spread them there on that hallowed ground where so many men had died way before their time.
Living history … there’s something about standing on the very spot where historic events took place. That little guy will never read his history textbook the same way again. Friends who’ve been to Israel tell me that they look at scripture in a whole different way after standing on that soil.
Wonderful and so hopeful tale from the road. Here the “next generation” is listening, reading and speaking words of wisdom from previous generations. The foundation laid for future words that will be written and wisdom created to lead us all to a more inclusive and better world.
everyone needs a good family road-trip-to-d.c.-by-way-of-gettysburg story for the scrapbook. we have one too that involved a bus tour. a lengthy one that wasn’t enough for my dad (but plenty long for my sisters and me). so, we got in the car and did the whole loop again just so my dad could stand in those places and bask in the moment longer than the tour allowed. teddy is too grown up…i can hardly believe it.
such a sweet story. and he’s getting so tall!
I saw your article on this in the Chicago Tribune. What a guy you’ve got there. Not sure where you’re from, but if you haven’t been to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, IL, you should go. I’ve been there 3 times and sit each time for several minutes in front of the wall map that shows the advancement of troops and change of control of the land in the Civil War. As the red and blue (north and south) lines shift, a running total of the war dead goes up and up and up. Really makes you think.
Two things: First, your kid nailed it. I think that most of us lose sight of the purpose of that speech, while focusing on its eloquence. Second, the last line stresses “people,” not “of,” “by” or “for.” Read that in an interview of a guy who heard it. Of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE, and for the PEOPLE.
I think there are ghosts in places like Gettysburg – the spirits of those who died there – and I think your son felt them in a very powerful way that he’ll probably never forget. Glad the Trib printed this too. This is the kind of story that deserves a broad audience.
bam, I searched for this online to send to someone who has just been to Gettysburg and needed to read it, and sent him the link, so there will be another person soon at the table. This is the story that brought me to you, and I will remember it until my rememberer no longer remembers. Love to you there at your table in Cambridge; you are near in thought and heart.
oh sweet sweet nanc, and what a miracle it was that you found the chair, and we found you. love to you always, my poet friend. xoxo
[…] 13, 2009, my nose was in the Chicago Tribune, a commuting normality. I read Barbara’s article “Four score and one 7-year-old’s tears ago,” which you can (and absolutely should) read by clicking the link, about her youngest son’s love […]