A road through the past

I’m in favor of modern, paved roads, when it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to drive on them (more on that later). Nine times out of 10 times, modern roads are helpful. But if you’re the fool who carries historical maps inside your head, modern roads can befuddle you occasionally.

On our summer vacation, we took a day to visit Gettysburg. This was a risky move, as the battlefield was an enticing attraction to only two members of our five-person family. I have always been a reader of American History. Big Brother has an interest in history as well. He took an 8th grade Civil War class last spring and was eager to see the field.

For the others, interest in Gettysburg was less acute. My wife likes to visit famous places, but once somebody tells her who won, she feels like she’s got all the info about the battle she needs. Buster believes when you go someplace with a cannon on every hill, you should be allowed to blow up something. Big Man just wants a hotel with a pool.

Sorry, Buster. All those guns are just for looking at.

It was a hot, humid day, but everyone bore it well. My wife was a trooper, driving us around and stopping wherever I asked so we could examine the monuments and walk the ground. I used the map in my head to answer Big Brother’s questions.

By the time we got to Little Round Top, it was the heat of the afternoon. We all climbed to the apex and took in the view. I wandered to the left, trying to locate the end of the Union battle line. Big Brother followed, and suddenly we were on a sacred quest to find the monument to the 20th Maine.

The beaten path ended, and we found ourselves exploring through underbrush. Now that the hunt had begun, the younger boys took up the chase, rushing downhill through the weeds to keep up. My wife followed out of concern for her wayward boys, issuing a constant bugle call of poison ivy warnings.

In the overgrowth, we discover the monument to the regiment in line next to the 20th. We must be close. Big Brother forged ahead, convinced he would soon be standing upon that hallowed spot.

He stopped short, clearly befuddled. When I came up to him, I understood why. He stood at a clearing with a paved road running through. We followed the road to an intersection, wondering how we could have missed the marker.

At the intersection we noticed a park ranger addressing a small group across the intersecting road. Then we knew our mistake. The modern roads had messed up the maps in our heads. The monument was just where it should have been, and just where we might have looked, had the Union line been bisected by asphalt in 1863.

No matter. We found our Holy Grail. A 13-year-old solidified his connection to the past. Even his tired and sweaty little brothers seemed satisfied. Their dad was happy about many things at that moment.

We didn’t see everything, but we couldn’t leave without finding this.

Mom had gone to get the car. When we felt the air conditioning inside, she became Gettysburg’s greatest hero.


A month later I got the Pay-by-Plate toll in the mail from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The toll for driving from the Ohio border to the Gettysburg exit, one way, was $67. Paved roads are getting to be trouble.


Conversations with my wife: Battlefields

My wife and I were trying to decide what attractions in Northern Virginia we would like to visit.

ME: We could always go to Manassas. That’s not too far away.

WIFE: What’s that?

ME: It’s a battlefield. In fact there were two battles fought there, so it’s kind of a two-fer.

WIFE: Oh. Another battlefield. Great.

ME: What’s wrong with battlefields?

WIFE: I can never even tell which part of the countryside is the actual battlefield. You always want to drive a hundred miles to look at trees and grass.

View of river from Ft. Donelson, TN

Trees and grass . . . and rivers! The pleasant, wooden deck to the right is, no doubt, completely historically accurate. (This is Fort Donelson, TN.)

ME: I always explain what happened where.

WIFE: You always say, “The Indians came in from over here,” like you think it’s important to me to know what direction Indians are apt to come from.

ME: I’ve never taken you to a battlefield that involved Indians.

WIFE: Well somebody told me where the Indians came from. I didn’t just conjure that up on my own.

ME: Are you sure I said Indians?

WIFE: How do expect me to keep track? You’re always pointing at a berm and saying, “So-and-so did this-and-that over there.” What you don’t get is that, to us non-history-fanatics, it’s just a field.

ME: It’s part of your American Heritage. We should see some of these battlefields before they’re all built over with malls.

WIFE: There’s a mall?

Monument at Bull Run

A monument at Manassas National Battlefield. Apparently, the cows attacked from the left background. I can’t verify this, because I haven’t been there yet.