Greetings from Canning, South Dakota.
Last week, Betty and I went to Richmond, Virginia, to visit our friends Lee and Betty Plevney. They showed us around the city and took us to some historical sites. We ventured along the James River and watched the water roll over the rocks. We bumped along the cobbles on Canal Street. Drove beneath the gigantic statue of a Confederate Army officer who stared down into the old city from one of Richmond’s many hills. One-hundred-plus-year-old tobacco warehouses lined the river banks. Smoke stacks, red brick Georgian homes, white colonial architecture with massive columns that hold the heads of houses and buildings up high, up proud. As if they never lost the Civil War. Did they lose? Really Lose. They don’t act like it. It was green and ninety-nine degrees when we finally climbed up the steps to the old St. John’s church where Patrick Henry delivered his fiery speech on March 23, 1775, when he supposedly said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
When we drove up to Old St. John’s I expected something grandiose and pompous, a reliquary worthy of those hallowed words, but what we found was a small church on a hot hill. It looked like it would need a paint job some summer real soon. The big trees were dusty and the church yard was crammed with old gravestones scattered hither and yon with names that meant nothing to me as I stared at them and tried to read the names of the deceased. The stones flaked off and parts of the names had turned to sand and dust. A lot of the stones from the seventeen-hundreds were scripted in letters with big, showy flourishes which would have made reading them difficult even if they had not been damaged by wind, water and sun. I wondered how many of the bodies there died as a result of the war that Henry and others helped to incite with their heady calls to arms.
After a great visit with the Plevneys, we headed north back to Washington, DC, and passed Cold Harbor and Spotsylvania Courthouse, the old 1964 battlefield called The Wilderness which, the year before that, was called Chancellorsville; and we passed Fredericksburg, and then Manassas where two monumental conflicts were fought. We missed Malvern Hill, and New Market, Petersburg, Harper’s Ferry and Appomattox.
My great-grandfather, my great-great grandfather and his brother were most likely at Appomattox, defeated and disarmed when Phil Sheridan and U S Grant cornered Lee and finally forced a capitulation. My father told me my great-grandfather walked all the way home to Texas after Lee’s surrender. That’s probably 1500 hundred miles and would wear out a pair or two of good boots, if he had them.
In Richmond the Confederacy lives on: That big statue I mentioned earlier, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson and Jeff Davis and the Confederate flags that flap on the little staffs that fit on the backs of cars and trucks. That slap slap slap they make as Virginia-licensed vehicles sped past us acted as reminders that they have yet to give in. Do I like that? That they won’t give in? I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand I admire their tenacity and think it speaks to some of the things that make this country what it is and some of those things I even admire. But then again, I don’t like the buried tint of racism I think lurks there, beneath the patina of Confederate bravado. Do I believe that all the people who fly the Confederate flag or who say, “The South is going to rise again,” are racist? I don’t think so, but still, there is some malice there in spite of Lincoln’s words, “With Malice Towards None.”
Virginia is a land of elan: the Marines, the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. Those old battlefields, Washington and Jefferson’s homes, Madison and Monroe, Jamestown and Old Williamsburg, Hampton Roads and Norfolk. Virginia holds the heart of militarism in this country. We are a military bunch, like it or not. 1812, Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Mideast of today.
And that’s just the big ones. Betty and I visited, not once, but twice, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and got a sense of all the other little scrapes, shootouts, assaults and invasions we have been involved in. The numerous Indian Wars as we like to call them (Blackhawk, Comanche, Creek, Sioux, Nez Perce, Apache, to name just a few), the Barbary pirates, and incursions in Chile, Nicaragua, Mexico, Japan, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine insurrection, Haiti (how many times?), and ditto the Dominican Republic. In our lifetimes, how about Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and on and on?
We are a nation of warriors. My mother’s ancestors, descendents of pilgrims on the Mayflower, fought for both the rebels in the American Revolution and for the British, too. My father’s clan fought for the south. I had a second cousin gassed in the Argonne in 1918. My father and four of his brothers, and my mother’s younger brother fought in World War II, as did two of my cousins. I had two cousins serve in Korea, one dying by the hand of a Chinese soldier on the frozen road south out of Chosin Reservoir. I, and I don’t know how many other of my kin, fought in Vietnam. Now we are in the Mideast and I am sure some of my family is over there. A lot of families in the country have similar warrior pedigrees.
Do we learn? Does it matter? Does it matter that the seed of men who fought against each other in the revolution and the civil war now fight together against our common—is the correct word enemies? Or are we the enemy? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pacifist, nor am I a war monger. I fought in the big disaster meddled with by the politicians while we waited for permission to load our weapons as the VC came through the wire. I am ambivalent about war, feel it is what we do—dare I say it is what we do best?
Later, after we left Richmond, we went to Nashville, Indiana, to visit Michael O’Hara and Maxine Bailey. We journeyed down to the local cemetery and looked at old graves. There was a grave for a union soldier who fought In the Grand Army of the Republic. The graveyard was full of World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans. As we ambled between the stones, we noticed a lot of common names and one of the locals told us that everybody in that place was related. A spider web, a string of interlocked families tied by lives and graves. Graves etched as monuments to war.
Back home at O’Hara’s, we talked Vietnam War memories and talked about our wealth of scars. I looked at pictures of his children and thought of my children and how we inadvertently pass on the remnants of our combat experience—death, blood, fear, violence, hate, anger. We scar our children and grandchildren, often without malice towards them.
We pass it on. It goes on—and on.