Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Memorial Day

  I had dinner alone in a swank restaurant in the basement of a hotel built in 1850 in Milford PA last week. Guy who built it started Delmonicos in NYC before the Civil War. Bartender went to find me a copy of the Times - "Look no offense but I just can't watch you read off your phone, man"- but they'd thrown it out so he grabbed the local weekly. "I mean if we're gonna talk and all." I agreed. He was a Mets fan, from Brooklyn, if you couldn't tell. 
  Things I learned reading the Pike County Register over some fine spiced kale and a decent ribeye.
  Did you know Norway used to be run by Sweden? Till like 1910.
  Did you know their used to be 4 billion chestnut trees up and down the Appalachian corridor? Then came the fungus.
  Did you know:
  It's 60 minutes from Milford to the nearest hospital with a maternity ward. A local author gave birth halfway along the ride. "I'd like to thank the good officers of the Jersey State patrol for helping my husband and I as we waited to deliver the placenta."
  French Huguenots settled along the upper Delaware in the early 18th century. There's a red brick church in…umm "Huguenot" NY….. that their descendants are trying to save. A good number of them are catholic.
   Did you know the Delaware Water Gap was gonna be an inland sea- dammed up for the tap water benefit of Philly and NYC- until they realized the place they'd picked for the dam would have failed. So the Fed did an about face to save face and said it was supposed to be a national park all along.
  JFK signed the law. At a house about 3 miles from my barstool. Grey Towers. I went up the next day to see the place and talked to the gardener for 20 minutes, which was far more informative than the tour. He was 14 when Kennedy got up to speak, happy simply to be out of school, "He landed right over there on the big lawn. Spoke right here in front of the records building. Under the Copper Elms…..and then, who knew, they shot him a couple weeks later…"
   I didn't ask but when he went on less about the great home of Gifford Pinchot founder of the National Forestry Service and more about what a tragedy LBJ was, I did the math. 14 in 1963. 18 in 1967. Small town. Not much for the books. Vietnam. 
  Rich was his name. Lanky, sunbaked, happy to be the care taker of the mansion he'd watched fall apart as a boy, playing in its ruins. "We put 30 million into it, bought back 400 acres, used local materials again and local people just like Pinchot's dad did way back. It's a rock."
   I liked that when he said "we" he meant the Federal Government.
   He walked me thru the forest Pinchot had planted - "By God I do wish I could return in a hundred years and see my trees.", the old man had famously said - at least that's what Rich said- but as we climbed thru the Pines and the Elms and the Maples and Cherry trees 4 feet in diameter, I thought about all the times I've gone hiking back East in the parks and state game lands of my youth and how you realize it was all clear cut, was all scoured fields and mountainsides of nothing for so long until guys like Pinchot pounded it into people's heads that if you erase the forests you'll drown the towns and destroy your farms and end up in a wet desert.
  Look at photos from the Civil War, look at panorama shots on the opening days of the great museums and libraries of the Progressive age, and what you might notice is the things stand in barren ground.
    There were no trees. We'd cut them all down. We mowed Pennsylvania. What you walk thru now unless you're deep, deep in the woods is third and fourth growth replanting, or random species that have blown in and can live on nothing.
  "I think this place is still here cause the Kennedys have a soft spot for it….doesn't make much sense otherwise. Must be earmarked every year."
   I had to agree that a multimillion dollar pile of stone in honor of a conservationist of wood didn't make much sense but I was glad it gave him a job.
   Rich waved me off, "Next time park in the lower lot, there's shade in that corner." And I drove 5 hours on back roads to Gettysburg, and it felt like I'd crossed a continent. From the gouged out valleys of the Lehigh and the northern Appalachians to the God blessed open fields of Lancaster. It's like going from the Balkans to the English Home Counties. From West Virginia to Iowa. You get some tiny glimmer of how people once measured distance. And how they were marked, molded, and dyed by the land they lived in. What they called their homeland, where they were from as opposed to that oh so different place on the other side of the mountains. Land we can hop across, to and from now in hours.
  I drove through a massive storm, clouds practically reaching down to scrape Pottsville and Lebanon off the PA map, trucks swerving in the wash, folks parked under the overpasses with the hazards on, but when I got to the battlefield the skies softened, went from bruise black to grey, and held. I had to laugh. It was just what you'd imagine. Rain plastering the windshield as I parked. I reached for my raincoat, opened the door and …..nothing but wind.
  And there was nobody there.
  Stones and statues dripping. Handful of intrepid school kids from Missouri, one in a wheelchair they couldn't push across the muddied field of Pickett's charge. The open farm land they say Lee looked across and said "Here. It will be here."
  And was it ever.
  Did you know at a steady walk it takes 15 minutes to cross the fields from the Confederate line to the Union angle. It's almost exactly 1300 steps. 1297 on my count. Though I imagine the last quarter of those, for the handful that made it, were at a dead run, so divide the last 400 by 4, and you get the feel for every step taken by those men across the grass.
  "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…."



  1. Went to Gettysburg on our honeymoon 17 years ago. Didn't have much money but the place is amazing. It really helped me learn more about the Civil War. I probably know more about World War 2 because my dad was drafted in that war when he was 17. But on the lighter side, I made my husband go on a ghost walk. But I sat through reanactments so we called it even. Hope your trip was a good one. What a great place to be at for Memorial Day.

  2. I think reading your writing helps me with my own, which is great because soon I'm going to be starting up my blog again and making it a point to write almost every day.

    I guess we always take at least a little bit of where we grew up with us when we leave. For me though, I actually fit in better in NYC than where I'm originally from. That I don't really understand.

    Very neat that you got to go to Gettysburg and I'm glad you're safe after driving through a bad storm. I've never been there, but someday...

    You still love your numbers and I've learned to accept it :)

  3. This just proves how much of a giant history geek I actually am, but what the heck.
    Did you know that the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry lost more than 80% of its soldiers on July 2nd at Cemetery Ridge within only 20 minutes, making it the highest loss rate among all units during the entire Civil War?
    So much tragedy, so much loss within such a short amount of time.

    I haven't been to Gettysburg or Waterloo yet, but I've seen the Berlin Wall 'death strip' where people ran and fought for their ideals and freedom as well (albeit under different circumstances), so I get what you wrote about feeling the steps taken by those who fought there. Lest we forget.

    1. That's a scary spot. If you follow the miserable car path thru the G burg battle site it's a couple hundred yards from the northern base of the round tops. The land dips, the road curves away and in a clearing in the trees is the stone to the Minnesota volunteers. I didn't know, and I went up to read it one day I don't know 15 years ago? and just stood there blown away- these guys got sent in and basically got vaporized to delay the grey charge just long enough for reinforcements to arrive and well….the Union to be saved. Yeah, I knew. But I love that you knew and that we all should. Someday I hope I get to speak at some event in Minneapolis or some MN town and if I do Im going to start it by thanking them for their great great great great grandfathers.

    2. Thanks. I hope you will. I was going to say how much this image, people being used as 'cannon fodder' for the sake of … all of us? reminded me of what happened in France 70 years ago. Especially after watching the live broadcast from Ouistreham last week. That one mustn't forget how many people sacrificed themselves for a brighter future they wouldn't live to see. But then you posted about D-Day yourself, so I guess that's kinda redundant now. Couldn't agree more on what you said though.
      Oh, and superlatives are indeed a real pain these days.

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  5. Ah, you're making me homesick, David! I can envision the battlefield (and the drive) as I read your words. So happy to be back there next week just in time for the reenactment. On one of your future trips there, you'll have to stop by the old Weikert Farm (Jacob not George) on Taneytown Road. It used to be a field hospital. It's now the home of Beth and Gerry Hoffman, and Tillie's Treasures, an antique store. Beth was gracious enough to open her home to me on one occasion and give me a tour. The floorboards are still stained with the blood of the soldiers. It's one thing to experience the battlefield, but to go into the homes that housed the dying soldiers is quite a haunting experience. If you ever have time, you should sit down over cocktails at The Dobbin House with a man named Bob Prosperi. He is an encyclopedia of information regarding the battle. Sweet guy too and LOVES to talk about the history of the town. Let me know if you ever want an intro. - Theresa