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.

Cherished historical figured pulled from his pedestal

For his 7th grade Language Arts class (what we old people used to call English), Big Brother keeps a reading log. Fortunately, he gets to read whatever books he wants, because he is not an eager reader, and is not particularly fond of fiction. He does the best the with history, so he has been reading a book about the American Civil War. For those who did not go to school in the US, and those who did not pay attention during their US schooling, it’s important to the forthcoming incident to know that the American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

Big Brother was getting close to the end of the book, last I checked. This morning, as all the boys were getting logged into school (wrap your heads around that, old people), I asked him if he’d finished.

From his classroom on the couch, he replied that he had.

“How did the Civil War end?” I asked.

He gave the standard reply of any 12-year-old who doesn’t want to be quizzed about schoolwork: “I don’t remember.”

“Really?” I asked. “You just finished it yesterday.”

“You already know how it ended,” he told me.

“But you just read the book,” I insisted.

From his classroom, on the loveseat, Buster (3rd grade) piped up in his brother’s defense. “But you know the most about history,” he told me.

“Yes, but . . . “

Big Man (1st grade) cut me off. Sitting in his classroom on the recliner, he forestalled my argument and closed the case in Big Brother’s defense. “But you were the one who was in that fight,” he told me, just before all three boys broke into a peal of laughter.

I just got cut down by a six-year-old.

Can you blame me for being a proud father?

I’m the guy in the middle. The one holding the gun.

Meeting Robert E. Lee

When I was in 1st grade, I got up at 4:30 every morning. I put on my barn clothes, and after a quick bowl of Cream of Wheat, went off to milk cows with my parents. My teacher was also my neighbor, so when I put my head on my desk in the afternoon for a little nap, she let me rest. It didn’t harm my education. In fact, I often revived the technique during my college years to get through boring lectures.

I sometimes slept through the bits of free time we were given, but when I didn’t, I discovered two things that shaped my life.

The first was a puzzle of the United States. I practiced that puzzle until I could put it together without having to consider the pieces. The entire world became a puzzle to me; I studied maps until I could put the different colored pieces together in my mind. Unfortunately, this never helped me in a Spelling Bee, where I always found myself sitting down after the first round. Geography Bees weren’t a thing yet.

The second was a book: Meet Robert E. Lee, hardly the reading material you’d find in a 1st grade classroom these days.

I expect 1st grade book collections have changed since 1973.

It’s hard to pinpoint when love affairs begin, but the fact I remember this hints that it had something to do with kindling my interest in history. I wanted to know more about long-gone people and the lives they led. More than that, I wanted to read.

I checked out of the library a book called Rogers’ Rangers and the French & Indian War. It was a middle school book, and despite my not comprehending it very well, I read the whole thing. It inspired me to play French and Indian War games in my Cap’n Crunch – the yellow pieces were the French and the Crunch Berries were British. The milk was a reminder that I had to get up at 4:30 next morning.

I doubt this cover will be featured on the front of next month’s Scholastic catalog.

Why do I mention these things? Partly, it’s because I don’t have anything more interesting to mention this week. It’s also because all our boys will be in elementary or preschool next year. I’m hoping each of them will find something in school that makes his little synapses crackle and fires him with a hunger for knowledge.

It would be nice if whatever excites them inspires them to read, but maybe they’ll learn in different ways. The boys like maps and Big Brother has revered Mr. Lincoln since he was three, but it doesn’t have to be Geography or History that sparks them, though it would be nice to raise children with an appreciation for what came before them.

Speaking of what came before, I’m grateful General Lee lived a fascinating life that drew me into the past. I’m happy his team lost, but I don’t think he would harm today’s children any more than he harmed me. Rogers’ Rangers on the other hand, those guys were rough, firing off all their long words at a 6th grade reading level. They almost took me down.

 

 

Reflections inspired by a German class for second graders

Our eldest is beginning an after school German class today. This is not the sort of news that normally makes one reflective, but here I go anyway.

In a perfect world, I should be the one to teach my kids to speak German. Implicit in that perfection would be my knowing how to speak German. My father spoke German, fluently. In the perfect world I mentioned, he would have taught it to me when I was little. I would have soaked it up, and it would be as natural as English to me.

In the imperfect world that formed me, my father did no such thing. He was a teenager during the Second World War, living in the USA and speaking German as smoothly as his immigrant parents. Not surprisingly, something in that combination convinced him not to speak German to his children.

I took German as a freshman in college. It was either a language or Math, and I felt done with Math. I picked German. Maybe something in my genes would mold it to my tongue more securely than the high school Spanish that had always merely swilled about in my mouth before dribbling down my chin.

German 101 supplied me the worst grades of my academic career, if you discard the high school Geography class I nearly failed because I was too busy protesting the methods of the high school Geography class and the methods of high school in general.

The edition I used didn't have such a lovely cover, which is probably why I wasn't inspired to do better in class.

The edition I used didn’t have such a lovely cover, which is probably why I wasn’t inspired to do better in class.

After freshman year, I transferred to a school that required no more Math or foreign languages out of me, which was good since I was done applying myself mathematically and I had no aptitude for foreign languages.

In fact, I was a pretty lousy student overall.

As the undergraduate years rolled by, it became clear that I was a poor classroom learner. Yet, for the very best of reasons (I couldn’t find a job), I attempted graduate school.

Graduate school taught me only one thing: there is nothing like higher education to suck the life out of a subject matter you love (or thought you loved).

I thought I loved History, until I tried to pursue it as a graduate degree. Apparently, it was something else I loved, an academic Cyrano de Bergerac, hiding in the bushes, feeding enchanting lines to the deceitful mouth of History. History itself is mind-numbingly boring; they taught me that in one semester of graduate school.

Since I’d learned everything I needed to know about History, I determined I didn’t require more than one semester of grad school.

That was the end of my formal education in German or Math or History or anything. Abrupt, but okay for a rotten student.

My son is excited about his German class. I hope that excitement lasts. I hope he’s a good student. I hope he inherited his mother’s love for school.

I hope he goes on to become much more than a grad school dropout who can’t even speak German.