Gettysburg, Still

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. – Proverbs 11:29

It was a late spring morning, still early enough in the day and the year to be cool. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park had its share of visitors, as it has had every single time I’ve visited, but was not yet crowded on this off-season day. We got our map from the visitors center and made our way to the parking area near the old observation tower, a good place to get some perspective on the site of this horribly bloody American Civil War battle.

We were just orienting ourselves when several large buses pulled in next to our car and unloaded hundreds of men and women in camouflage fatigues. They assembled smartly for a talk about the battle, which had taken place almost 150 years ago. The speaker discussed the positions of the forces, relative size and strength, leadership, movement, tactics, and so on. He took some questions, then went on to describe the horrific nature of war in those days, what the battlefield was like for the men fighting and dying, what it must have sounded, smelled and looked like.

The speaker then went further, deeper. He discussed the social and political context of the Civil War itself. The clash of egos, the carnage of a society grinding against itself, the insanity of neighbors and brothers fighting each other, the resulting destruction.

The camouflage-clad audience was rapt.

Turns out, this group was the graduating class of West Point. And, I came to find out, it’s an annual pilgrimage. The United States Military Academy, in order to train the next generation of our Army’s leaders, still requires cadets to take a trip to this place, and to learn its lessons.

I’ve rarely been more gratified by or prouder of my country’s armed forces than I was at that moment.

History is not just reviewing dusty, old facts. It is fully living in the present, understanding that where we are today is dependent on where we’ve come from.

To show proper appreciation for the great, indeed complete, sacrifices of our brothers who fought and died at Gettysburg, we must all – as West Point cadets do – learn the lessons that are still there for us.

We cannot continue to divide ourselves, particularly over trivialities, and expect to survive.

Do we need another Gettysburg to finally understand this lesson of our history?

Traveling With Kids

Nothing looks familiar, so the right stop comes as a surprise. Hadn’t you been watching? Did you read the map wrong, again? Not now. Pay attention.

Let’ go, for God’s sake.

There’s so much baggage to get together. Their snacks are spread out all over the place. This is stuck to the seat now. Where’s his shoe? The other one.

Do you have the tickets? No, you didn’t give them to me. Well, I sure don’t have them.

I don’t care if he doesn’t want to leave. This is our stop. If we miss it, we’ll miss our transfer, then we’ll be to the other end before we can get off and change back.

Pulling the little one by the arm, baggage tucked tightly under the other one. It’s falling out – everything’s falling out all over the place. Why in hell did we pack so many t-shirts? Well, there’s his shoe, at least.

The little one is squirming to get out, to be free. To do what? Stay on the train? Run faster out the open door than I can? Bending over to scoop the floor for the last time, then, a quick look over the shoulder at the rest of the brood and out we go at a dead run.

Running. Sweat running down my back and the smells of a tightly closed-up gym.

But then, suddenly and as if by magic, we escape into the bright light of day in a new place. The unfamiliar becomes alive. Buildings I’ve never seen before pushing upward into the sky. Sounds in a language I don’t understand. Smells of food, as yet to be discovered.

And my little one is smiling, pointing downward, toward the sidewalk, noticing something only he would: a flowering weed that has managed to squeeze its yellow-orange self into this glorious scene.

I hug him and kiss my little one on the cheek.

Westward Ho

When you travel alone, you’re prone to meet more people, see more unusual things, find more adventure. At least, I am.

Case in point: Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Some years ago, I was driving across country, taking my time and seeing things, meandering my way west after living in the East for years, on my way back home. It was summer and I was going anywhere my map, money and little Renault would take me.

After a long, hot day of driving (no A/C in the old Renault), I pulled into Cheyenne and discovered, to my annoyance, that it was Pioneer Weekend or Frontier Days, or whatever they call their annual celebration of cowboying. The town was overfilled with loud and, by all appearances, drunk men dressed identically – new big hats, new plaid shirts, new tight jeans, big belt buckles, boots, etc.

I’m no cowboy myself, but even I can recognize the look of phonies. These weren’t real cowboys but guys dressed up to go to a cowboy party weekend, and I didn’t want any part of it. I was hot and tired and not used to the altitude and in a crappy mood. So, I decided to roll right through town and keep on going.

Before long, I saw this old hotel on the town’s outskirts. Seemed nice enough and like a place to explore a little. I checked in, had a nap and a shower. Feeling much more human.

Found the hotel’s bar and, to my happy surprise, there were a lot of people, some dancing to a live band, a solid vibe. And the band was even pretty good, biting into some danceable jazz/blues. It was a place I could hang out, I thought, so I took a stool at the bar and ordered a drink.

Within a very few minutes, I was talking with a couple of guys from the nearby Air Force base and another few locals. Everybody was from around Cheyenne and nobody was wearing brand new, department-store cowboy outfits; good signs.

This Cheyenne isn’t so bad, I thought to myself, once I found the real people.

After an hour or so, I got into a conversation with an older guy that went something like this:

Guy: So, you from around here?

Me: No, San Francisco. On my way back there right now. You?

Guy: Yup, I’ve lived in Cheyenne all my life. 55 years. Was married for 19 years before my wife left me. That’s when I had my first homosexual relationship.

Sorry, what?

It was at that exact moment I felt a veil had been lifted from my eyes. I looked around this bar I’d been enjoying. How’d I missed it? The couples dancing to that pretty good band were all men. The people sitting at tables and in booths were all men. The guys I’d been drinking with at the bar? Men.

Somehow, I’d found a gay bar in Cheyenne, Wyoming. What are the odds? And, further, having found it, what are the odds I wouldn’t have even noticed?

Well, I wasn’t about to bolt out of the place, which would have been weird and rude, so I stayed for a couple more drinks. I even got invited to the symphony by a guy I was told was one of Cheyenne’s top lawyers. (He called it a “firm function.”) I was flattered, of course, but I had to get back on the road home the next day.

See what you expect to see; perspective is a funny thing, alright.