Evening Train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
8:30 - 10:30, Wednesday, October 31, 2016
The Last 100 Days of the Presidency of Barack Obama
The tracks are on unstable beds; the shaking train, block by block, taps out its own drawing. The lightly held pens are irrepressible. At mid-day in Gettysburg I was guided through what can only be called killing fields. Up, down and across one field or hill after another my park guide layers up one story on top of another. The dead young bodies are unevenly stacked, criss crossed like the angled stake fences that occasionally border the local lands. To this day the park rangers and archeologists continue to dig up bones and rebury whoever it is with some military dignity. There are those who insist on the presence of ghosts. They want to lead nocturnal tours. The Park Service will not recognize them as professionals and refuses to them license. The Park Service will only honor the verifiable. The guide continues. It is a three-day battle. I learn of the deadly perils of bad strategy, vanity and occasional exception of an act compassion. Taking a hill is advantage. With a good cannon an 8-pound ball can travel up to a mile. When there are too many canons the air is so thick with smoke no one can see a target. Taking hills makes for hand-to-hand combat, the clang of bayonets, more shrieks and dead bodies. Hill to hill, there are statues commemorating, specific battles, one State brigade after another. The defeated south was slow to raise money to create memorials. In 1938 the Cemetery had an event to reconcile both sides. Thousands of the now elderly veterans attended. In the war there were some heroic generals and some not. A northern commander disobeyed; he did not hold his hill and made stupid decisions. Many of his men were slaughtered. He took a cannon ball to the knee, He took home his amputated leg; he skinned and pickled it in whiskey. He carried it forever in a special case as a kind of trophy. The troops that survived his command hated him. When the battle was over, it took months for the remaining locals to bury the bodies. The stench from the rotting dead could be smelled for long distances.
Occasionally a statue of Clio, the goddess of history, her white stone pen and tablet in hand, rises up over one of the memorials. I am not quite sure why she is always made to look pretty. My guide was not that version of Clio. As far as I can tell, in less than two hours, with robotic intensity she has told me America’s deepest and most irredeemable story of its first Hell.