We only took one big vacation when I was young; it was during the summer I was five years old. All five of us piled into the family car and headed toward the East Coast from Indianapolis. We drove through the Smoky Mountains, stopped in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Appamatox, Virginia, toured Washington, D.C., and swam in the Atlantic. I recall having a wonderful time burying myself in the sand at the beach; I was impressed by how many stairs we climbed in the Washington Monument; and I was transfixed by the glassblowers at Jamestown. But the most profound moment of the entire trip happened in Pennsylvania.
My dad had always been a civil war buff and was well-read on the subject. He made sure our itinerary included a stop at Gettysburg National Military Park. I don’t remember whether it was on our way to the coast or the way back, and I have only a vague recollection of seeing the wonderful diorama in the visitors center. The part of the visit that is etched in my memory was on the battlefield itself.
My brothers and I, being kids, were scampering around and climbing on a cannon situated on Cemetery Ridge, the position from which the Union Army defended against Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the final day of the battle. I must have called out for my dad to “Watch this!” or otherwise engage in our frolicking. When I got no response, I looked over at him and saw an expression on his face I’d never seen before. His far away gaze was very unusual and his sober demeanor puzzling. I looked to my mom to get a bead on what was going on.
“Your dad’s thinking about what happened here a long time ago. Many soldiers died in a battle that happened right where we’re standing,” she related in hushed tones.
I wasn’t at all sure what the implications of all that might be. But, since children are keen observers and little chameleons, I matched my mood and behavior to the “big people,” who seemed very thoughtful and sort of sad. I immediately stopped horsing around and got quiet. I walked over and stood beside my dad, remaining very still. He put his hand on my shoulder and after a long silence, said softly, “This place is very important, honey. I want to honor those who fought and died here. When you grow up, remember this place.” (In retrospect, I realize he was viewing the site and meditating from a veteran’s perspective; he had fought in WWII.)
I stood beside him a while longer without a clue as to how a little kid like me could honor the fallen. I strained to imagine soldiers on the field that lay before my eyes, but couldn’t. And after a spell, I became mildly frustrated with my inability to “get it,” so I went to the car. In a little while, my parents joined us, and we drove off to make the next stop on our big trip.
Years later, as an adult, I would lobby my husband to make our first big vacation a trip to the East Coast. He agreed, and we headed out to see many of the same points I’d seen nearly twenty years earlier. This time, I would get a whole lot more out of the Smithsonian museums, and I would appreciate the historical significance of Appamatox, Williamsburg and Jamestown. But when we got to Gettysburg, it was a whole other story. I studied the battle in advance in order to more fully appreciate what we would see. The diorama at the visitors center absolutely sprang to life. But it was the driving tour of the battlefield that was most powerful.
When we got to Cemetery Ridge, we parked the car and walked over to read a placard next to a cannon. As I stood there, I thought about my dad. I suspect I experienced many of the feelings he had. There’s something rather sacrosanct about so many people — on both sides of the divide — being willing to shed their blood for principles, ideals, and causes they held dear. In the silence, Abraham Lincoln’s venerated address rang loudly in my ears. Every beautiful word. (Audio link, recited by Sam Waterston.)
Four score and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,
conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation
so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place
for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.
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
—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.