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.

EPILOGUE

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.

The encore nobody asked for

When I was in 2nd grade, I puked so hard one day it left me traumatized about going back to school for a week. Though I was physically recovered, every time I tried to go to school my imagination insisted I would puke again the moment I entered the building. Eventually, dear old Jack, our bus driver, had to carry me over his shoulder into my classroom. I kicked and screamed, but I didn’t puke. Thus ended my nearest flirtation with dropping out of school.

I think the reason I was so affected by this puking incident was that it happened in the lunch line, which was about as embarrassing as a public vomit could be. At least I think it was in the lunch line. Memories get faded over the decades, but I know somebody puked in the lunch line. Maybe it was me; maybe it was another kid; it could have been that I, and one or more other kids, puked in the lunch line. Somebody did. When you must step around a chunky puddle to get to your egg salad sandwich, it sticks with you.

A doctor and nurse are a start, I suppose, but for the sake of the child I sure hope the guy in the back is a sturdy bus driver.

It’s been too long since we talked about vomit, hasn’t it? That’s my fault and I beg your pardon. What brings me back around to these thoughts is my 2nd grader’s recent bout with the gut bug. Big Man is much more composed about puking than I was, but to be fair, he had the advantage of puking in the privacy of his own home.

Even so, he’s remarkably composed about the upheaval. He dutifully pukes in his mop bucket, then asks for a washcloth in the same calm tone that he might ask, “Can I have an ice cream sandwich?” on a hot summer day. Between the tempests, he is apt to give a self-diagnosis of his medical situation: “I think it’s my waist that’s causing me to puke.” Close enough, in my book.

One strange phenomenon I have noticed in him, and his brother, is this: they have the pukes, get better, run around like normal for a day or more, then have one good final puke after the parents have let their guards down and put the bucket away.

I don’t know how common this is. I only found one mention of such a thing online. It was referred to as an encore vomit. I don’t know that we’ve ever cheered loudly enough over puke to make anyone think we wanted more of it, but there it is. The kids think they are back to normal, but their little tummies aren’t really, and there is some miscommunication about how much food can be tolerated. Hence the curtain call.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so worried about puking again in school if it had been presented to me as an encore performance. That might have made it seem less humiliating. Of course, the cafeteria egg salad wasn’t exactly tempting me back either.

Countless tiny fortunes

There is a white squirrel that plays in our back yard from time to time. We have scads of black squirrels and a sprinkling of grey squirrels, but this is the first white squirrel we’ve seen. 

We like to watch him whenever he shows himself. The last time I saw him, I called for my wife to look out her office window. “That means good fortune is headed our way,” she said when she spotted him.

“I could sure use some good fortune about now,” I replied. I think that’s a common sentiment these days, but I immediately regretted saying it. As a parent who chides his children for whining, I felt like a hypocrite.

I had fallen into the trap of thinking of good fortune in terms of big, milestone events: winning a lottery, getting a big promotion, or landing a book contract from a major publisher. 

True, none of those things have happened, and they aren’t on the horizon. It would be great if they did happen but expecting them will lead me into a lot of self-defeating whining.

Think he’ll let me rub his tummy for luck?

I’m not a person who finds himself in the right place at the right time. In that sense, I’m not lucky.

But in a more important sense, I am lucky. I’m not a person who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sometimes the most fortunate events are the ones that miss us – the things that don’t happen.

I have the people and things I need to be happy. Maybe fate has not answered my dreams, but it has also not burdened me with unsurmountable nightmares. 

The last two years have been a time of suffering around the world. I have suffered less than most. I did not lose my job. I did not lose any family members. My children have had to adjust to a new way of being children, but they have adjusted more easily than many others.

A lot of us could use some good fortune about now. Many of us already have it, often in the things we take for granted because they are not huge, lifechanging events.

A little, white squirrel made me consider all my subtle, good fortunes. How odd that he came to visit during our Thanksgiving Holiday.

If you keep asking me to lie for you, how are you ever going to learn to do it for yourself?

Buster came home from 4th grade with a job application. This labor shortage must be getting pretty bad, I thought, if they’re recruiting workers in elementary school. On the bright side, if it were an application to work in a restaurant, maybe he’d get a gig as bartender and I could score some free drinks.

It turned out it was only an application for one of the classroom chores listed on the back of the paper. There are classroom tasks for the kids to do, and they must choose which one they’d prefer and apply for it. This strikes me as a creative exercise for the students, but I’m still a little disappointed at the lost dream of free drinks.

Buster was not as appreciative of the exercise as I was. First, he couldn’t decide which job he wanted. He asked me to choose for him, but I refused. I wasn’t going to spend the school year hearing him whine that I had picked out a lousy career for him. Besides, it wasn’t my choice to make.

Take care choosing your 4th grade job; you could be doing it a long time.

At last, he decided to apply to be the class “Substitute.” This is the kid who does the job of any of the more ambitious kids when they call in sick. The choice didn’t exactly scream “initiative” at me, but it was his choice.

Next he had to explain why he wanted this job. This was a huge hurdle for the boy. He fretted and pouted and whined, begging me to answer this for him.

I told him I couldn’t explain his choice. He was the only person who could do that. “Just write down why you chose that job,” I told him.

“I don’t know why,” he whined. “I just picked it randomly.”

“Then write that down,” I replied. I knew he didn’t feel like that was as adequate answer. Also, I had a feeling it wasn’t 100% true.

“I can’t say that!” he protested.

“Is that why you picked it?”

“Kind of.”

“And?”

“And you don’t have to do much.”

Aha! The truth comes out! Imagine a nine-year-old boy wanting to avoid doing chores! Scandalous!

“But I can’t put that down as my reason,” he said. “Can you tell me what to write?”

“No. I can’t. This is where you have to think for yourself. If you don’t want to tell the real reason, you have to think of something else that makes sense.”

“Can you just tell me?” he pleaded.

“No. This is why you go to school. To learn how to think, so you can lie plausibly.”

After more pouting, he settled upon the explanation that he liked to do a variety of jobs, which I thought was as credible as it was disingenuous.

Some people work hard at useful tasks, and some people work hard at excusing themselves from such tasks. Sometimes the excuses end up being more burdensome than the original tasks. I wonder if, in all his application angst, that truth ever occurred to Buster.