I am turning off Interstate 76 onto two-lane highways that cut across the countryside of Adams County, Pennsylvania. It’s remote out here. Think wheat fields and ramshackle barns. I’m visiting Gettysburg National Cemetery today, but it feels like I’m traveling toward the earth’s edge.
I am accompanied by loud thundering noises.
A convoy of deafening Harleys, classics, scramblers, and Softails rush past my vehicle. The pack leader looks like Dennis Hopper gone to seed. He gives me a two-fingered salute then tests the limits of the known sound barrier.
It was bike week here in Gettysburg. Swarms of motorcycles gathered in this nationally important borough to honor our history by having daily poker runs, tattoo contests, bike shows, chrome parades, burn outs, and of course, bikini contests.
One local merchant says, “The bikers are real polite and all, but I wish them ladies would put on more clothes. Some gals are way too old to be ‘advertising the goods,’ if you know what I mean.”
I enter the park, drive around for several minutes, and finally find a parking spot between two custom choppers that cost more than my house.
At first glance, Gettysburg National Military Park feels like any other national park. Lots of kids in oversized sunglasses. Middle-aged people in white sneakers. Young parents pushing strollers, food stains on their crumpled clothes, wearing looks of metaphysical exhaustion. And of course, bikers.
But in many ways this park is unlike any other. Not only is this the resting place of 6,000 veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam, this is a battleground where more than 150,000 soldiers clashed during the War Between the States. Where 10,000 were killed and mortally wounded.
When they transformed this place into a cemetery, Abraham Lincoln attended its dedication and gave a little speech you probably heard about.
The Lincoln Address Memorial stands front and center in the cemetery. A bronze bust of Lincoln stares at his visitors. The embossed text of his 272-word speech is engraved on plaques.
There is a little girl inspecting this monument. She uses her hand to trace the bronzed letters of the speech while her mother reads the words aloud. I listen to the mother recite them using her best mom voice:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent…”
My fourth-grade class memorized this speech verbatim. My fourth-grade teacher said it was important, and she always cried when we recited it. I wonder if schoolkids still memorize these words. I hope they do.
The little girl at the monument is reverent. She wears thick eyeglasses and touches Lincoln’s words like they’re church relics.
“…A new nation, conceived in Liberty…”
Lincoln’s words took two minutes to deliver, but they were painful words. Literally. He delivered this speech while feeling “weak and dizzy,” and “his face had a ghastly colour.” At the time he had a bad fever and a “scarlet rash.” It turned out he had smallpox.
He should have been in bed. But he was here. Paying his respects.
Right now I’m standing where he stood that day. Or maybe I’m standing where the tuba player was positioned, playing “Hail to the Chief.” I’m only speculating.
What I know for certain is that I’m on sacred soil where men died by bullet, ball, and bayonet. I tread upon thousands of unmarked tombs. And I’m trying to visualize these young soldiers.
Maybe one such soldier was seventeen. Frightened. A new recruit. Maybe his name was Jeremiah, or Charles, or Danny. Maybe at night he would lie within his oilcloth pup tent, lulling himself to sleep by dreaming about his sweetheart.
Maybe he was a farmer. A Methodist. A baseball man. A fisherman. Maybe he had a big family who lit candles for him and prayed for his return.
Perhaps when he was out here marching, he did not see what the politicians saw. Maybe he didn’t see opposing uniforms, but the faces of his brothers, uncles, cousins, and countrymen.
Maybe the young man walked into combat uttering the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe when he died the last words on his lips were the names of his loved ones, not his enemies.
I stand here imagining that unknown boy soldier. Freckle-faced and scared. All 150,000 of them. And I hear the voice of the mom reading:
“…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…”
The mother pauses to allow her daughter to touch the engraved lettering. Then, both mom and daughter recite the remaining lines in unison.
“…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.”
They smile when they hear my voice join in. So do the two leather-clad bikers standing nearby.
I hope my fourth-grade teacher could see us from where she is now.